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.