Sunday, December 21, 2008


Few places call to my spirit like a barn. They have a special kind of magic--no fairy dust needed, just the get-yourself-dirty kind.

Perhaps my perception comes from my early, horse-less years. The years when my parents knew what every birthday and holiday wish would be. How I loved hanging out in stables and barns, just to get close to horses and everything that came with them. The smell of leather, warm horse, and sweet hay, mixed with the ever present tang of ammonia, is deeply imbedded in my senses. Call it aromatherapy. In my opinion, the world is easily divided between those who think a stable stinks and those who know better.

As a teenager, I had my share of jobs cleaning stalls and barns for other people. While the work was back breaking--no sissies allowed--the barn door was a place to shed teen heartaches and anxieties. I could both lose myself and be myself in the company of horses and plenty of manual labor.

As a child and teen, the structure we used to store feed and tack could hardly be called a barn. It was the product of a thrifty 80-year-old man who dogmatically refused to get a building permit. Instead, Grandpa fashioned a makeshift lean-to out of plywood, nails, and stubborn independence. Sheer will power held it together, I'm sure. While I was grateful for the "barn" and the horses it served, my heart held out hope that someday I'd have the real thing. The kind with stalls, a hayloft, and cats; where husky, horsey sounds would greet me day and night.

Shortly after my 30th birthday, my husband and I bought our first property. Forget about the house, it had a barn! Once used to raise ponies, my barn had stalls, a tack room, and hayloft. When I first walked inside, the spirit of it's former life whispered to me through a pile of old horse shoes, hooks for hanging harnesses and a wall hung with the carved wooden names of ponies long gone. Perfect. Soon the stalls contained new horses, my horses, who greet me daily with husky, grateful sounds and provide work that continually reacquaints me with the simple, authentic side of life. I can still be myself best in a barn.

The only kind of savior for me is the One born in a barn. Someone unafraid to get His hands dirty. Someone humble, real, and sheltering.

Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 15, 2008


Sometimes, I'm afraid I may not be a true horse lover. This is because I do not enjoy all horses.

Of course I love, and have loved, individual horses but there are many, many more I do not care for at all. Some of them rub me the wrong way almost on sight. I feel somewhat guilty admitting this. Like a parent who doesn't have a natural affinity for children. I admire those pure souls who love a horse--any horse--simply because it is a creature worth loving; created by the One who values life. Those who serve and care for the unlovely, unsound, and unstable in the equine world are a special lot. I "met" such a woman recently while reading posted comments on the web page of a horse rescue. My rescued horse is as ugly as a mud fence. I love her anyway.

I like to think that I am picky about my equine companions in the same way that I am choosy about human friends. AJ Arberry said, Good horses are few, like good friends, though they appear many to the inexperienced eye. I agree. There are three main things that draw me to a horse: Intelligence, work ethic, and good movement. In that order. Pretty is also important. It may sound superficial but lets get serious; ugly costs as much as pretty so you might as well have pretty. For me the horse is not mainly utilitarian, it is a thing of grace and beauty. Ideally, at least.

Of my three criteria, only movement is obvious. The horse is either blessed or cursed genetically and there's nothing much he, or his rider, can do about it. I can relate and sympathize here. But the other qualities may be hidden. Hidden, lets say, under a mud fence.

When I say intelligence I am not merely referring to the ability of a horse to learn. Even dim witted horses can learn cues and be improved with training. What I'm referring to is an overall personality, a depth of character, curiosity for life, and ability to think/reason. All horses are not created equal in this respect. I'll overlook a lot for a good mind and would rather walk than ride a dull horse.

A good work ethic also covers a multitude of "sins." Chance is a fine example of this. Chance wasn't a pleasant horse to train. This is because he thinks for himself and isn't particularly eager to please. That said, once he understood the expectations and gained confidence in human beings, he began to show an admirable work ethic. On his first trail ride this little horse kept a level head, plowed through a swamp, up and down hills, and out walked horses nearly twice his size. I thought to myself, I'm gonna like this horse. Since then he continues to impress me by working despite back/stifle issues and a bout of colic (which, to my shame, I didn't realize was happening). His conformation doesn't give him any breaks, either. A long back, narrow chest, and short, lean hip are not an equation for graceful self-carriage. Noone accuses Chance of being a pretty mover. In his case, work ethic makes up for his body shape.

Tango is a study in contrast. Clinician Richard Shrake has a scoring system for balance in equine conformation. This horse scores a perfect ten. A beautiful neck, soft poll, straight legs, short back, well sprung ribs, good length and angle of hip....he has it all. His stride is low and flat but with plenty of suspension. I love my Cadillac Ride. However, the Cadillac may, or may not, feel like working. This depends on many things--whether he is interested in the task (most important), his emotions of the day, the alignment of the constellations, the Solstice....anything can throw him off. Most often it is boredom. Generally the trail is where he does his best work. He has good endurance and can power walk up a hill. But get him in the arena and this horse can be maddening. Before being convinced into work, he may try out his ultra slow, pack horse gaits, keeping his head low and hind end strung out behind. He can nearly perform the four beat "dopey lope" western pleasure Quarter horses are famous for. That's embarrassing in an Arabian. Depending on his mood though, Tango may suddenly become terrified of a barn swallow, bolt, buck, or otherwise spice things up. Capable of brilliance, he only shows it to me in flashes designed, I'm sure, to frustrate me. I feel like my mother at report card time--You'd have A's if you'd only apply yourself! After seven years, I give up. He's a horse that makes me laugh and I never tire of looking at him. That is enough.

Barely under saddle, Eli is still a bit of a mystery but I have high hopes. He is highly intelligent, a lovely mover, and has beauty to spare. I'm crossing my fingers for the work ethic part.

Predicting potential in horses is fascinating. While breeding is important and can't be overlooked, the "mud fence" horses are the most interesting. The ones people like me cast aside for something prettier. Sea Biscuit was such a horse. Small and crooked legged, it took someone to look past outward appearances to develop his incredible talent. Also noteworthy is the horse, "Beautiful" Jim Key. The product of a Hambletonian sire and Arabian dam, Jim Key was so disappointing as a colt, so ugly and sickly, that his broken hearted owner named him after the town drunk. He was advised to put the colt out of its misery. Yet under this mud fence lurked unbelievable intelligence. Jim Key went on to perform his amazing feats--he learned to count, tell time, make change and spell--before presidents and dignitaries. It was said he had the IQ of a twelve year old and mastered academics to the sixth grade level (from the book, Beautiful Jim Key: The Lost History of a Horse and a Man Who Changed the World).

Genetics aside, it seems harnessing potential in horses comes down to a few factors: Willingness to work with imperfection; investment of time; and simple belief. Sorta like God, actually. He patiently works with my imperfections, believes in my future and loves me, mud fence and all.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


Horsemanship lingo can be maddenly vague and obscure. Some of my favorite expressions include: Riding the thought; having "soft eyes"; and following a feel.


"Following a feel" makes no sense to the uninformed and, from a writers perspective, is a botched use of language. The Word Police could find and prosecute me for that one.

Nevertheless, the term refers to something that transpires between horse and rider. When open, clear, calm communication is taking place, a horse naturally follows what they are feeling from the rider. This includes not only cues (unfortunately) but emotion. It becomes important for a rider to "ride the thought," focusing on the performance he wants from the horse.

Recently my daughter, near the end of her ten-year-old rope of patience, exclaimed in utter frustration, "How come you can always get Chance to pick up his right lead, and I can't!"

I paused before answering, eager to seize the teachable, Zen-like moment. "You have to feel it, Sweetie. Think about the lead you want, then push him into it with your hip--see?" I slung my hip to the side to illustrate. Haley got back on Chance to try it for herself. Already frustrated, her motions were crude and forceful. They did little except confuse Chance who immediately reacted negatively to her unconcealed frustration. The cue was not the primary problem.

"Like this Haley," I called again. Only mildly suggestive before, my hips motions now bordered on wanton as I attempted to make a subtle cue obvious. It was to no avail. Knowing she was punishing the horse inadvertently from her own lack of self control I told her to get off and take a break. She fought to keep back tears of frustration.

"You can always do it!" She said, accusingly, and stalked off. So much for the Zen moment.

Horses are being used increasingly in unconventional settings to teach communication skills to people. This is because they are unable to lie, are incredibly intuitive (see post, Smelling the Soul), and spot-on mirrors of their handlers/riders. Seasoned horsemen say that a nervous rider makes a nervous horse. So too, an angry/fearful/rigid/reactive rider will make the same sort of animal. This is hard for humans to accept because we are experts at hiding our feelings and intentions. We harbor negative emotions and ways of relating but expect to get a positive response from our environment. The horses are not fooled.

This was illustrated to me recently while I worked with Eli. I may be 36 but my self control is sadly not always better than a ten-year-old. Eli loads confidently into larger, stock type trailers but became claustrophobic and nervous in my smaller, two horse straight load. He is a sensitive, non-confrontational horse who wants to please so getting him into the trailer was no problem. Getting him to stay in, quietly, was another story. I worked several days with him, concentrating on his obedience staying in the trailer and waiting for my cue before backing out. At first I was understanding and maternal. Trailer loading is often problematic in horses and I wanted Eli to become confidant before taking off down the road.

My frustration began to build when, after several days, Eli continued shooting out of the trailer unbidden. The process was taking longer than I thought it should. One day, after loading and unloading him successfully a few times, he regressed by kicking out after I released the butt strap. My anger instantly flared. I fought the urge to flick the whip at his hocks. While Eli could not see me, or my body language, his response was dramatic. Scrambling backward as fast as he could go, he continued backing up across the yard, neck raised in alarm, until he reached the end of the 12 foot lead rope. As far away from me as he could get. Disguising my anger didn't fool this horse one bit. He could feel it.

The term Soft Eyes comes from the classic, Centered Riding, by Sally Swift. This is a fascinating book on horsemanship. When one has soft eyes they are able to see/take in more of the world around them. They are open and receiving, able to react appropriately to a situation. Hard eyes speak of a focus on only one thing. A hard look closes down the environment and gives the rider only one perspective. This reminds me of an instance with my daughter, several years ago.

Children are much more transparent and honest with their feelings. They can feel the truth around them, even when they cannot articulate it. This is humbling and, at times, hilarious. One such a time was over Thanksgiving when Haley was only two. It had been one of those days....preparations for coming guests including loads of cleaning and cooking and plenty of stress. In addition the kids had me running--"Mommy help me/get me a drink/wipe my bum/I want to watch Barney...." You get the picture. When we all sat down to dinner I breathed a sigh of relief and dipped my fork into a mound of mashed potatoes for the first buttery, mouthwatering bite. At that moment Haley, who had visited the bathroom unbeknownst to me, called out. "Mommy, I went poop. Come wipe me." It took every ounce of self control and maturity to keep my mouth shut. Inside I screamed out my annoyance: Is it too much to ask for ten minutes of peace and pleasure with my mashed potatoes?! Can you not wait until after dinner to go poop!!!

I stalked to the bathroom, ripped off a wad of toilet paper and bent over Haley. My hard eyes were focused on only one thing--personal irritation. Looking up at me with the open curiosity unique to young children, Haley asked, "Mommy, are you nice?"

I don't remember what I said, only that my first response was to burst out laughing--Actually, I'm not nice; thanks for asking. Kids and horses....good for keeping one humble.

Gotta get--and quit losing--that pair of soft eyes.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008


A man made national news recently when he rode his horse from Oklahoma to Washington State. Mark Ryan, a Long Rider, made the 2,000 mile journey in about five months.

Certainly a trip of this length and time commitment had a deeply inspiring reason. Was it to cure cancer, help the environment, work for world peace?

"There's nothing like traveling 2 miles an hour," responded Ryan when asked the obvious question.

Oookaaay.....he took five months off of "real life," left behind conveniences (he took no cell phone, GPS, or computer), and journeyed at a snails pace through the elements to unbelievably sore rear end??!

Ryan's reply makes a little more sense if you enjoy horses. To quote an unknown author: In riding a horse we borrow freedom.

Freedom. The search for a feeling of freedom gnaws at the soul of every human being. It finds many outlets--the adrenalin rush of a sky dive, a fast car, a pornographic website, the rush after a needle injection. Life is complicated and full of unbelievable pressure. Pressure to perform, be somebody, acquire possessions to keep up with the Joneses (why is their name Jones, by the way? Why not Rockefeller?) Sometimes I have to get away from expectations and responsibility; from the clumsiness of my own unwieldy physical body. At those times I crave the freedom of traveling at 2 miles per hour (okay, I prefer to go a bit faster than that). A friend calls this Equine Therapy. Forget the ridiculously high cost of hay; it's worth it.

Second Corinthians says, "Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit is there is liberty." I find it fascinating that the horse--loaner of freedom to earth bound misfits (to quote Pink Floyd)--is a favorite of the One who offers lasting liberty.

With the exception of sheep, equines are mentioned more than any other animal in scripture. References to horses, tack, and horsemanship are sprinkled throughout the Bible and equines are portrayed as both servants (Zechariah), and messengers (Balaam's donkey; Revelation). Additionally Christ is the ultimate cowboy when he instantly tames a colt to ride through Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. He is returning not on a quad (my son's choice) but on a magnificent white horse with a slew of horseback riding saints--the Giver of freedom astride its symbol. I always get excited at that part of the Bible. I must add that I know what breed of horse He will return on....Arabians may be the most ancient and Quarter Horses the most popular but Christ will certainly return on a white Andalusian. No doubt in my mind.

I like to tease my non-riding husband that he needs to prepare for the Second Coming. Nothing worse than having the "trail ride" begin and you're waiting for a leg up. No doubt in that moment we'll instantly acquire super natural horsemanship skill that makes our attempts here on earth look disgraceful. But I'm not taking any chances. Gettin' all the practice I can in now.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


"So how'd that chiropractor visit work out?"

My sister is sipping wine and flitting in and out of the dining room making an early Thanksgiving dinner for the extended family. Discussing the highs, lows, and weirdos associated with alternative medicine (see associated blog post) is normal in my family. We've lined up for tinctures, acupuncture and naturpaths, finding surprising answers and plenty of conundrums in the search for health and vitality. We refer to these practitioners as, "chicken bone doctors." This is an affectionate term for people we have found worthy of respect in their oft misunderstood fields.

My sister's interest is genuine, as was my brother's online response to finding out I made an appointment for chiropractic care for a horse--I'd pay money to see someone adjust a horse!

The truth is, I'm not sure what to think yet about Chance's adjustment on Saturday. The long and short of it is, the horse was "out." This included his pelvis and both shoulders. His neck and throatlatch also required work. The Chicken Bone Doctor (CBD) was a petite Canadian with surprising strength and agility. She also had a sense of humor honed, no doubt, by plenty of skeptics both equine and human. I liked her.

"He's very sore." She observed, running her hands down Chance's spine. "He's had a hard life."

I shared parts of the horse's story, including his malnourishment, and fall in the trailer in September. Also his definate one sidedness at the lope. The longer the CBD worked, the more agitated Chance became. Many behaviors I hadn't seen in awhile came to the surface--threatening to kick, walk over me, and even strike (though he didn't actually do it). There were moments of head lowering and licking and chewing (a sign of relaxation, understanding and acceptance) as she worked but for the most part, Chance showed off his Jack Nicholson "charm." It appeared the most upsetting part for him was having four women, including the CBD pulling, prodding, stroking, and asking him to move, shift, and stand still. All his defensiveness and insecurites resurfaced. On the recheck the following day, Chance's behavior showed no improvement.

"Alot of this horse's issues are in his head," the CBD concluded. I agreed. We talked about the situations that lead to misalignment in horses (some of which are not obvious). Fall aside, I couldn't help seeing a connection between Chance's sometimes insecure, defensive approach to life (though he is getting better) and his out of whack spine.

Wise horse trainers know that to be effective with a horse one needs to consider more than just the physical. Similar to people, horses are a unique trinity of mind, body, and spirit. So, where does the physical end and the mental take over and visa versa? This is a secret only God knows but after a lifetime of observing horses I am convinced they share some characteristics with human beings. We are a unique dance of mind and body. It is a mistake to expect to simply treat physical symptoms and achieve overall health. The spirit is equally, if not more, important. Yes, I know this sounds like anthropomorphism but stay with me.

In humans, I have heard upwards of 90 percent of illness and disease has its origin in the mind. Sound incredible? I'm no doctor but the longer I live the more I tend to believe that. To quote the Bible--As a man thinketh, so is he.

What about horses? Can the state of their mind influence the physical body? Consider two special cases...

In 1932, American Roger Selby aquired a shipment of Arabian horses from the famous Crabbet Stud in England. Included in the shipment was a "freebie," a small inbred stallion believed to be sterile. Besides his apparent genetic flaws, the horse was a mental disaster. Some accounts say he was unrideable and possessed a cantankerous temperament. Selby had the horse's sperm tested by Ohio State University where he was found, indeed, to be sterile. But Selby's trainer, a man named Jimmy Dean, was convinced the horses potency problems were rooted in his mind. Distrustful of humans the horse seemed, to Dean, stressed and unhappy. Dean's wife, a sensitive horsewoman, sought to gentle the horse and spent hours gaining his trust. He was taken on relaxing rides around the farm to calm his explosive nature. Five years later, the patience of Selby and Dean were rewarded when the horse was put to purebred Arabian mares and found to be fertile. Raffles went on to sire 45 producers of National winners and is considered a legend in the Arabian breed.

A more current example of the strength of the mind, in horses, comes from Eastern Oregon. Last October, a small Arabian gelding was found wandering alone in the Cascade Mountain Range. Dragging a lead rope and wearing a full set of shoes, the horse obviously did not belong in the wilderness. Something was amiss. The animal was clearly suffering from a festering leg wound. In addition his left eye hung uselessly from its socket, his head and neck encrusted with his own blood. But that wasn't the worst of it. Veterinarians who examined the gelding found he had been shot in the head, the bullet exploding into three dozen pieces lodged permanently in his brain. His jaw broken, it was estimated the horse had been wandering for weeks. He was missing half his blood volumn. There is no physical reason why this horse is alive today. Simply put, his mind and spirit did not want to die.

Hero is on the road to recovery at his new home, Crystal Peaks Youth Ranch outside Bend, Oregon. For the complete story visit Owners Kim and Troy Meeder are the best kind of horse people--humble, genuine, and down to earth. They work hard to make a difference in the lives of maladjusted horses and youth (if you need a good cry, download the short DVD on the ranch and the work they do).

As for Chance, he has plenty of physical work ahead of him on his road to becoming a well rounded horse. And I have limits to probing the equine mind (no horse shrinks in my future). But instead of focusing on what my horses are eating, I'm seriously considering what's eating at my horses.

Friday, November 21, 2008


Nothing that is forced or misunderstood can ever be beautiful.

So wrote the Greek horseman Xenophon, author of the first known text on the horse and how to ride--On the Art of Horsemanship--23 centuries ago. It is a profound spiritual principle.

The fact is, there is beauty in the freedom of choice. Unfortunately, human beings by nature gravitate towards force. The horse, a natural follower, can generally be forced to perform the same maneuvers he would willingly execute on his own if approached in a thoughtful manner. An athletic and artistically beautiful creature, the horse that freely chooses to partner with a human being can move a spectator to tears.

I have used both force and invitation when training horses. My often clumsy attempts to teach the creatures I admire most is similar at times to my experience homeschooling my two children. I begin in a state of expectation, devouring books and magazines that show me how to be creative and inspiring. I have images of my children following my lead with rapturous curiosity, soaking in the knowledge I share in bursts of brilliance and a spirit of mutual respect. This lasts for a day or so. When all does not go as planned, I quickly move to plan B--"Do it because I said so."

Of my three horses, Tango most despises this approach. A clever, inquisitive pupil who quickly tires of a task, Tango is always a step ahead of me, mocking my goals of horse training genius. Pat Parelli I am not.

Since Tango is so clever--he can open and shut all the barn doors--I thought he might make a good trick horse. I spent hours with the clicker (also used to train dogs and dolphins) teaching him useful things like how to retrieve. It was hilarious at first. The problem came when Tango discovered that the language of the clicker--initially fascinating to him--was simply a tool to get him to perform silly parlor games. Disgusted, he eventually refused to participate even for his favorite treat--carrots.

The next maneuver I thought would be ever so cool for Tango to learn was the Spanish Walk. Training for the Spanish Walk is a slow process beginning on the ground with a whip to cue and progressing to under saddle cueing once the horse can move forward and understands what is expected. Tango quickly figured out the whip cue but often resented the tedious practice even though I took pains not to tax his very finite attention span. Never one to hide his feelings, Tango often tried to grab the whip or hold the edge of my sleeve in his teeth. He now does a pretty good Spanish Walk but saves his most spectacular performances for the times I don't ask for it. This is a horse who likes to think and choose for himself.

Perhaps because of this, the times Tango does choose to relate to me--his rather dim witted caretaker--are burned into memory and give me a deep committment to this sensitive and intelligent creature.

One such occasion was a perfect June day, two years ago. Tango had a summer job--lawn mower for the neighbor--and was not at my home. Though there were horses within sight of his lush field buffet, he was alone in his own piece of Horse Heaven. When a friend came over for a visit, we decided to take a walk and visit Tango.

Tango nickered a greeting and walked to the gate when we arrived on the property. I entered the field and looked him over, taking note of the ample layer of flesh now covering his ribs. He was the picture of contentment. Instantly he began rubbing on my shoulder and lipping my shirt, a big brother happy his sister has come home so he can pick on her.

"Get off me you oaf." I pushed his head away, trying to sound stern, but ended up pressing my face into his warm mahogany neck and breathing deep. Eau du Summer Horse. I bet I could market this scent. It ranks right up there with freshly mown hay and sheets dried in the sun. A minute later it was time to go.

"See ya Pal."

Instead of returning to his smorgasbord, Tango followed the fenceline after me. When I turned onto the road he began to trot, then canter the perimeter, whinnying urgently.

"How cute, he doesn't want you to leave," my friend remarked.

"Yeah, funny horse." I looked after him, feeling stupid when tears prick at my eyes. We heard his pounding hooves long after he was out of sight.

I'm no genius horse trainer but I know how beautiful it is for a horse to choose to be a partner.

You don't have to be a horse owner or rider to appreciate the following video links. Do yourself a favor and check them out. The first is Stacy Westfalls unforgetable bridleless performance: The second is the beautiful mare, Matinee, performing her freestyle dressage performance at the 2006 World Equestrian Games with rider Andreas Helgstrand: Incredible.

May we all strive after beauty and neglect the use of force.

Monday, November 17, 2008


There's no doubt in my mind that Murphy was a horse owner. His mantra--Anything That Can Go Wrong Will Go Wrong--could only be inspired from one source. The horse.

Perhaps the most accident prone animal on earth, horses are natural cowards prone to panic. They are also suprisingly fragile for their size. Not a good combination. A horse's propensity to panic under stress met Murphy last week on my small farm.

It was a special day. Chance--once neglected and unwanted--was the star of a photo shoot for Guideposts Magazine (look for his story in the March and PLEASE notice how white he is). Blissfully unaware of Murphy, I ignored the little voice inside (the smarter me) that said, "Never tie a horse below wither height to an unstable object." I tied Chance to a low section of fence board so the photographer could get a different body angle. Then the photographers dog began nipping at Chance's heels...

It took exactly five seconds for all hell to break loose. Before I could get to him, Chance wrenched the board free of its posts and took off down my driveway. It was a spectacular wreck in the making. All present (including a man across the street) gaped at the sight of a little pinto running, dog in tow, a 12 foot 2x6 swinging from his head. I did not gape. Heart pounding, I raced after Chance praying my voice would somehow snap him out of his terror. Thankfully, after a few minutes, he turned toward me confused and ready to bolt again.

"Eeeeaaaaasy son, eeeeaaaassssy..." I kept my voice low and, I hoped, soothing as I approached. The weight of the board had pulled his halter down and was now partially hooked behind his back teeth. I could see the whites of his eyes as he snorted.

The dog corraled, I approached cautiously--I'm generally not keen on placing myself next to a thousand pounds of panic.

"Let me help you; eeeaasy." Carefully, and quickly, I untied the quick release knot (see, I'm not a complete idiot) and guided the board to the ground. I stroked Chance for a minute or two and let him catch his breath. A few minutes later, we were back shooting pictures.

I like to think Chance allowed me to rescue him from a potentially horrifying wreck (think country road, cars, fences, hellacious law suit....) because of the relationship of trust I have worked hard to build with this horse. In his moment of extreme panic, he had just enough faith to turn to me for help.

One of the hardest training issues for this horse was trailer loading. I am a firm believer in actually training a horse to load calmly into a horse trailer, regardless of how naturally compliant they might seem. Trailer loading is innitially a scary, unnatural act for a horse. "Training" does not mean you put them in their favorite position every time, with their buddy, in their trailer of choice, when they are comfortable. This is because the day will come when you need to load that horse under stressful circumstances (such as at 10 o'clock in the evening, on the street outside a busy fairgrounds, while a demolition derby is in progress). You'll be glad you actually trained your horse to load, trust me.

Before Chance, I had only read about "scramblers" in horse training books. He not only pulled back in the trailer, he scrambled--throwing himself against the walls and striking. Oh, also (my personal favorite) while whinnying hysterically. To put it mildly, he was a little stressed in the trailer.

It took a few months to correct his insecurity, advancing by increments from leading him into the middle of the trailer and standing at his head, to tying him in the middle and standing just outside the trailer, to finally putting him in the more confined front. I began by trailering him with a friend before advancing to solo outings. The little horse that used to sound like a herd of wild horses and arrive at his destination dripping sweat, can now be trailered all by himself in an older two horse straight load. I am very proud of him.

It always tugged at my heart to leave him in the trailer during training. He was honestly afraid and kept his eyes glued to me. The moment I left his line of sight, he'd start moving restlessly and whinnying. I did things like clean the barn not far away so I could monitor him. Frequently I'd call to him, "No worries, Pal. I'm right here," just so he could hear my voice. You'd think I was talking to an imaginary friend.

See, I know what a thousand pounds of panic feels like. Following a generational pattern in my family, panic attacks are written in my genes. It's funny, too, because in my family the people who have suffered from them are not high strung. We're the calm, cool, thoughtful types who enjoy watching paint dry. Go figure.

A panic attack is a seriously debilitating condition. I'm sure the reasons they are brought on are as individual as the sufferer but for me, a woman of strong faith, they were cause for shame and embarrassment. Nothing worse for an introvert than to lose control of their emotions.

After a couple very frightening panic attacks, I sought a spiritual solution. Probing the depths of my fears resulted in some surprising conclusions. An attack always seemed to instantly divorce me from God. I'd go my way, a 12 foot 2x6 flailing around in my brain, sure death (or something worse) was imminent. It took some time with my Father, some feeding on scripture and testing of His faithfulness to reach a point where my trust was built up. When a time of testing came (March of '08 to be exact) I knew Who to run to. Since then, Murphy or no Murphy, the panic attacks have gone away.

"No worries Pal, I'm right here."

Thursday, November 13, 2008


I was seriously dreading introducing Eli to Chance, a horse with all the social graces of Jack Nicholson in, As Good As it Gets. However, that day had to come. Here are the cliff notes...

Three hours in the barn with a whip: Tiring
One splintered wood divider: An Annoyed Husband
Peace between a stallion and two geldings: Priceless insight on dealing with irritating individuals

Eli continues to amaze me with his manners and quiet, intelligent way of responding to things. Here are three tips from him on handling uncomfortable confrontations.

1. Always be the picture of grace and humility. Even if your enemy doesn't become a friend, your classy ways will annoy him untill he is eventually worn down by your good example.

Eli seems to have no aggressive bones in his studly body. I'm waiting for the "Big Stallion" attitude to show itself but his overtures to Chance upon introduction were polite and amiable. Chance responded by screaming and striking repeatedly. Eli continued to offer his friendship by stretching his neck over the wood fence dividing my two back paddocks and sniffing at Chance. When his short stature prevented him from taking a chunk out of Eli's neck, Chance responded by turning his rear end toward the fence and kicking it to pieces, literally. Just Eli's presense infuriated him and the little horse frequently shook his head, lips pursed in frustration. I decided the safest way to facilitate the two horses making peace would be for Chance to be stalled next to Eli at night. They could sniff between spaces in the wall and over the tops of their stall doors. Hopefully, in time, Chance would accept Eli.

2. Realize there is a time to stop "casting pearls before swine"(or short furry pintos). This is not only biblical, it just makes sense. Let your example shine when your actions/words aren't appreciated.

At some point, Eli decided to stop offering friendship to Chance. Instead he went about his business, lounging in peace and tranquility, just out of reach of Chance's eager teeth. After two days, Chance began to show signs of accepting Eli. Though protective of his space, he stopped the screaming and striking, choosing instead to ignore the handsome intruder. My repaired fence (thanks Honey) is still standing.

3. It's helpful to be Brad Pitt(particularly if your enemy is Danny Devito). You can't go wrong adding classy behavior to studly good looks.

Perhaps these tips from Eli--at least the first two--can help you survive an encounter with a difficult individual.

Monday, November 10, 2008


So often in my life with horses, it is the little gestures and body language that move me the most. Opposite of the obtuse flailings and loud outbursts of human communication, horses are aware of life and their environment on a deeply intuitive, even spiritual level. This was evident to me, yet again, the day I introduced Eli and Tango.

A good deal of thought went into the logistics of introducing a strange stallion to my generally non-confrontational gelding (who is also "my baby"). Eli is well socialized and has excellent manners but I was nervous. Horses--be they mares, stallions, or geldings--have their druthers and can take a violent disliking to eachother almost on sight. My property is small and modest. With no room for excessive boundaries, everyone is expected to coexist in relative peace around here.

Tango has met only two horses in seven years that he instantly, passionately, disliked. Unfortunately one of them happens to be Chance. Occasionally I am forced to put them together and a sad scenario inevitably follows. Chance puffs up, driving Tango continuously for no reason and biting him savagely if he doesn't move fast enough. Every inch of his 14 hands proves the point that it is not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog. Tango, a mischief maker who doesn't possess the heart for serious confrontation, withers under the bullying. If left in this situation he will go off his feed and retreat to a corner, head down, a little boy who has dropped his ice cream cone and finds there is no more to be had.

Eli had been on his own for two days when I decided to put Tango across the fenceline. Heart pounding, dressage whip in hand, I unsnapped Tango's lead shank and waited for the show down. The first sniff between the two made Eli squeal and rear. Tango, body tense, responded by striking at the fence. I hit the side of the barn with the whip to startle them. Eli, neck arched, showed off a nice passage, every inch the proud stallion. Tango, disgusted, ambled to a pile of hay and turned his rear end toward Eli.

This dance was repeated, two more times, then Tango parked himself more permanently by the hay and ignored Eli altogether. After a few minutes, however, Eli lowered his head to the ground, nosing under the fence in an equine gesture of invitation. It took less than a minute for Tango to RSVP. As Tango approached, Eli seemed to freeze in his head down position. Tango arched his neck over the fence and began sniffing at his neck. I tensed for the bellowing sure to come as a result of this dominant position. Instead of throwing his head up, Eli waited for 10-15 seconds, than slowly, swan-like and graceful, he brought his head up and parallel to Tango. Necks and jaw bones nearly touching, the two quietly sniffed eachother. I wish I videoed the scene, two creatures deeply inhaling the essense, personality, and intentions of the other. As if they were inspecting eachothers very soul.

When this was over, the two parted amiably and went about other horse business--eating, drinking, and itching at the gnats that are particularly bad this fall. Soon after, I put them together in a paddock where they continue to be best friends--lying side by side, sharing hay, and sleeping together.

Can one discern the depths of another in a sniff? If only it were that easy in humans.

Thursday, November 6, 2008


I first saw Eli on a gorgeous May day (we cling to memories of sun here in the Pacific Northwest). He stood quietly by a horse trailer, the picture of composure despite the horses milling around him--no doubt many of them mares in heat .

Eli is striking simply for his appearance--a tall bright chesnut with chrome to spare and plenty of hair. A Brad Pitt sort of horse you can't help oggling. What I fell for, however, was the look in his soulful Arabian eyes. There was something special there, something quiet, thoughtful, and kind. I had no doubt I was admiring a deeply intelligent animal.

Perhaps "love at first sight" is an idea some take for granted. I am not one of them. I only know this is what came to mind when I looked into that horse's eyes.

Immediately I walked to his side and raised my hand to stroke his shoulder. While his eye was calm and curious, Eli immediately arched his body away from my touch.

"He's a little touchy. Hasn't had much handling," the owner explained. I didn't care.

"If you ever want to sell him, please call me." The words came out of my mouth but later made no sense as I thought about Eli. I already had three horses, more than enough to use up all my spare time and money.

Six months later I made the trip to pick Eli up, feeling like a little girl getting her first pony. I couldn't wait to get my hands on him.

The first couple of days Eli made it clear his personal space was of utmost importance. He was a model equine citizen in the trailer, respectful on the lead line, and had been ridden a handful of times. The horse calmly accepted every sort of intrusion on the ground, including a friend's inspection of his studly jewels (an act horrifying to non-horse people). There didn't seem to be a spooky bone in his body. Yet, if given the choice, Eli was pretty sure he wanted to leave.

It was hard to give Eli his space. I wanted to bond with him--like immediately-- and was already planning our future "dates." Tevis cup, here I come (did I mention I've never completed even one endurance ride?). I forced myself to proceed slowly. Eli needed to decide for himself if and when he was ready to be with me.

About the fourth day after picking Eli up I took him out of the pasture. I simply wanted to spend some time with him--give him a good grooming and tape his height. Now, height is something Arabian owners are, in general, obsessed with. This is because the breed is not known for it's stature. Arabs are often advertised like this: "15 hands, barefoot" or "14'3 and 1/4 hands high." Eli is an exception to the standard, standing a solid (barefoot!) 15'2. But I wanted to tape, just to be sure.

When I approached him with the tape Eli didn't spook but made it clear he wasn't happy with the trailing white paper touching his body. I knew he would tolerate it, if I forced him, but this isn't the kind of relationship I want with the horse. I let him walk, and walk, on a 12 foot lead in circles around me while he decided what to do.

An hour later, Eli turned and faced me, ready to accept the tape and subsequent grooming which he seemed to enjoy. Watching the horse sort out his relationship to me was food for thought later on.

One of the wonderful, and frustrating, aspects of horsemanship is accepting that the horse is often a mirror of it's handler/rider. In this case, Eli's behavior is a mirror of my relationship to my Creator. I'm pretty bent on leavin' if He gets too close.

I'm amazed when I read the Bible and see just how crazy God really is about me. He sings over me, is delighted by me, wants to bond with me, thinks about me all the time, and promises his future plans for me are full of possibility and joy. Unfortunately, I'm too often content with him dropping my daily sustenance and going on his way. If he reaches his hand too close to my personal space, I'm leavin'.

One of my favorite jamming tunes is Paul Brandt's, "Leavin.' Really, if you haven't heard this song you need to--preferably turned up LOUD and spilling from your truck windows as you take off, horse trailer in tow, fleeing kids, housework, and all adult responsibilities. I guarantee you'll instantly become a dashboard drummer, even if you aren't a country music fan.

Paul Brandt sings a tune that echos my heart. Trouble is, I really need God. I know it, really I want it, I just have to let him into my personal space.

Yesterday I approached Eli as he was eating his hay. I reached up under his lush wavy mane and began scratching his neck. Instead of leaving, he leaned into my hands and pumped his neck up and down. Being close has its benefits.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


I made a doctor's appointment last week. The sort one is afraid to tell their husband about. No, I'm not pregnant.

I made a chiropractic appointment for my horse.

While my non-horse Honey is unfailingly supportive in my equestrian pursuits, he can only take so much.

Though a natural skeptic, I come from a long line of alternative health seekers. It was inevitable that it leaked into the care of my horses. It all started with my grandfather. Born in 1898, in a sod house on the plains of Colorado, Grandpa was from the old school, literally. But when it came to health the man was ahead of his time. It started when he became a vegetarian as a young man--long before this was trendy--and he maintained a lifelong obsession with health and longevity. Grandpa experimented with things like accupressure, health "spas" in Mexico, fasting, and herbs of every sort. You could smell him long before you saw him. One of my favorite memories of Grandpa was him in his 80's, gathering wheat grass to blend into a chartreuse slurry he downed with no problem. A white haired wizard stooped over the blender. We all laughed at Grandpa's herbal adventures. He had the last laugh though, living to the ripe age of 102.

My mother, a registered nurse for all of her life, followed Grandpa's example. Mom has healed a falty gall bladder with weeks of putrid smelling herbs, used all sorts of tinctures, massage, accupuncture, chiropractic care and, my favorite, a device she strapped to herself that emitted a frequency purported to kill parasites living in her body. I've laughed many a time at Mom's expense. Now she's the one laughing.

"Are you going to put the drops under his tongue?" Mom didn't even try to contain her giggles when I told her about the herbal tinctures I purchased for Tango in hopes of supporting his sometimes faulty respiratory system.

"Not exactly. I put it in his grain." I grimace, knowing full well I deserve her good natured ribbing.

Then Chance came along. This horse continues to surprise and amaze me. Recently, however, he has exhibited unusual behavior when loping to the right. While he will innitially pick up the lead, he seems to only be able to hold it for a few strides before tilting his head (counter bending), breaking gait, and/or bucking. He lopes normally to the left. While in my care, Chance has fallen on the lunge line and also in the trailer so my hunch is something is going on in his spine that is affecting movement (and making him cranky). I'm looking forward to his appointment in two weeks and some insight into this behavior. I have, thus far, avoided telling my mother or my husband about it.

Had luck with alternative care for your horses? I'd love to hear about it.

Monday, November 3, 2008


My creative mind went wild when I considered creating a blog. Why hadn't I thought of it before? It fits nicely with the freelance writing I do and is a great outlet--the ultimate diary.

Mentally massaging the idea, I was brought up short by the sight of a friend's T-shirt last week: Nobody cares about your blog.

Fair enough. Why should they? Bloggers fairer than I exist in abundance.

I'll blame it on the genetics that compel me to record my interior musings, much of which have already found their way to the printed page. Friends and family will tell you nearly anything is fair game around here. Fortunately, they love me anyway.

As for horses, don't get me started (I can do that all on my own). They are an endlessly fascinating topic. Besides existing quite nicely as living art, my three Arabians are a constant supply of joy and inspiration; daily proof that God gives good gifts. Certainly worthy of blogdom so onto the bandwagon I leap.

Because these characters will play the starring role here they are worthy of introduction.

Kaszmere (aka Tango)

A now seven year old Polish bred Arabian gelding, I raised him from a wee, bratty colt. He is a true bay beauty; a friend who makes me laugh often. While he is considered mature, this horse will probably never grow up--a Peter Pan of an equid whose main goal in life is to avoid boredom.


An eight year old half Arabian pinto gelding. This horse belongs to my ten-year old-daughter but because I started him under saddle and played the major role in his rehab from neglected, rebellious stallion to safe riding horse, he occupies a special place in my heart. He is perhaps the horse only a mother (or little girl) could love and thus far epitomizes "does not play well with others." While he has blossomed over the last year, his constant need to assert himself (we call it Small Man's Disease) makes it tricky to keep in him in a herd. But, with people, Chance is evolving into a reliable companion. We love him, warts and all, and realize that his scrappiness may have helped him survive a difficult early life. For this, we salute him.

Aur Elijah (Eli)

Six year old CMK Arabian stallion. Eli is the new kid on the block. This sounds hopelessly sappy but I fell in love with this horse the moment I saw him. He is a dream horse and I still cannot believe he is standing in my pasture (thanks Betty!). Eli has a quiet mind and dark, soulful eyes that don't miss a thing. If Tango is a babbling brook, Eli is a study in the phrase, "still waters run deep." Much more on him in the weeks and months to come.