Monday, January 26, 2009


Sometimes I think all I need to know in life I can learn from observing my horse.

Okay, an overstatement. Still, in matters of the spirit my three horses often speak to me of deeper truths. Last week was a prime example.

I felt weary and desperate as I hitched up my trailer, popped two sedentary horses inside and took off down the road. There was no rhyme or order to the thoughts jumping around in my mind. Spiritually I was groping in the dark, hands outstretched for anything to grasp or, more likely, bump in to. There were tangled relationship issues, home life challenges, and, last but not least, confusion in my writing goals. Freelancing has been good to me over the last four years--I am grateful--but lately I've felt stale, dissatisfied, and unsure of a direction. God has never let me down so, where was He in all of it?

On the way to the riding arena I gripped the steering wheel and stared out at the pastoral setting. Even at 2 pm, a hard frost crystallized every corner of the landscape not touched by a wan sunlight. A world in freeze frame. I related to the immobility around me. My prayers out loud were weak as the daylight: "Lord, I don't know what to do. You'll have to show me. You know, make it obvious." Obvious as in, hit me over the head, force my feet to take steps in the right direction. Whatever. These are the times one is grateful for solitude and for a God who doesn't require eloquent delivery.

At the arena I unloaded and began saddling Chance. I crave the rhythm and routine of riding at times like this. My brain is grateful to move in a direction that is familiar and comforting. I enjoy sharing space with an expressive creature that doesn't talk to me in words. I planned on lunging Tango, who suffers from a stifle injury, but Chance was the focus of the day. After a mid winter vacation he showed signs of regressing a bit in his training. Specifically, inability to yield and stiffness. Haley was back to riding but Chance needed a reminder of how to move and behave. He needed Mom.

I knew what sort of ride I'd have even before putting my foot in the stirrup. Chance looked here and there, refusing to stand for mounting. My presence was a trifling detail. I held his head but allowed him to walk and shift as he considered every possible distraction. It didn't take too long for him to realize he was working harder than he needed to so he stopped his feet and let me mount.

After about a ten minute warm-up, I pushed Chance into a trot and felt things come unhinged.

"Self Carriage" is a term horsemen use to describe an animal that knows how to use its body and move with grace, weight well shifted to the rear as it is propelled forward in cadence. Good self carriage is athletic. It is beautiful. It has nothing to do with a small resistant pinto of mediocre conformation. I felt as if I was wrestling a giraffe bent on a course of destruction. Any previous understanding of how to flex at the poll, give to the rein, and move in rhythm had evaporated in the course of a month and a half. Chance careened toward Tango (quietly standing tied to a post) one minute, shied at a barrel he's seen aproximately 117 times the next. I could see the front of his head as he craned to escape the bit that, up until that point, hadn't even been a source of pressure. I tried bending him into the semblance of a circle but his body couldn't follow his nose. The circle was a rectangle one minute, a triangle the next. I was riding a four-legged train wreck.

On any other day I might have been frustrated but I felt strangely calm. I understood Chance's inability to carry himself. This is the unsettling thing about the nature of horses--they are such perfect mirrors.

In lieu of punishment, I simply pushed Chance onward in his triangular circles and held my hands steady and quiet. After several minutes I felt him begin to relax. His head dropped, releasing the pressure of the rein. The spasmic, pogo-stick trot lengthened a little, even as it slowed. His body began to remember it could move efficiently and gracefully. The triangle stretched into an oval, than a circle. As a reward I allowed him to walk. By this time his small woolley ears (they really are adorable) were trained on me. He wasn't so worried about the barn swallows flitting in and out of the arena, the once "frightening" barrel, the other horses moving around in the stalls or trucks going by outside. He waited on my direction.

"God helps those who help themselves." While I understand the limited usefullness of this phrase, it isn't true (and isn't found in the bible). Yet somehow I have grasped the idea and used it to justify my internal thrashing, my busy plans, my worthy goals. I'll figure it out and God will show up after I've proven myself a clever, hard worker. In the Psalms David wrote, "Cause me to know the way in which I should go." He was a wealthy, good-looking king who had everything but a clue. He understood that he needed to wait for action/direction from God before taking action himself. I'd been doing a whole lot of worrying, a whole lot of extra work, when I could simply yield and wait for the help I desperately need. It will come.

As it turns out, I'm no good at self carriage.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


If I can't be on horseback please put me someplace quiet, with lots of ink. Outside of a mountain trail, my favorite place to get lost is a library or bookstore. I approach books, and reading, like I do an all-you-can-eat buffet--don't be afraid to try something you've never had before. You may decide you hate it but you could also discover your next favorite dish.

Recently, on a trip into town (its usually an all day excursion) sans children I was able to carve a little me time in between the bank and a grocery store stop. Walking into Barnes and Noble I breathed deeply and checked my watch. 45 minutes to feast.

The religion section held my attention for about twenty minutes (Note to self: Buy CS Lewis's, Letter's to Children--precious) but then I meandered by a table stacked with self-help books. I always have to look here. Really, how many variations on the theme "A Better You" do we really need? Perhaps I'm over thinking originality in my own book publishing quest...One title did catch my eye: The Power of Body Language: How to Succeed in Every Business and Social Encounter, by Tonya Reiman. I used the rest of my time flipping through it and skim reading.

The topic of body language is fascinating. I have studied it a fair bit in my efforts to advance my horsemanship but not as much in human communication. I found several human body postures that communicate a similar message in horse interaction.Just for interest sake, here are a few.

Touching heads equals intimacy:

I cannot imagine going up to a complete stranger and touching his/her head. This gesture communicates closeness in a relationship, a merging of personal boundaries. Lovers will snuggle with their heads and easily touch eachother here. According to Ms. Reiman, couples who purposely avoid this may be engaged in infidelity or are thinking about it. For horses, placing their head next to another horses head, when relaxed, can also indicate affection. A horse will certainly bite and wield their head aggressively but a soft dropped head, next to another horse, is only done among friends. They must be comfortable to assume this posture. Eli is a horse who is very boundary conscious. He will tolerate nearly anything without a fuss but his posture sometimes contradicts his outer calm. While grooming he often kept his head angled away, avoiding my personal space. Recently he began to show pleasure in grooming and in my attention. I was pleased when, one evening, he turned his head toward me while I was brushing his neck and kept it quietly bent in a sort of horse hug. One must be careful of personal space when working with horses and be on alert for signs of disrespect. In this instance, Eli's gesture was gentle and one of friendship so I allowed it.

Feet pointed toward someone equals respect/interest/affinity:

In a chapter on positioning of the feet, Reiman states that people will point their feet toward someone they like while conversing. Likewise when a horse stands, front feet facing the trainer, they are listening and giving respect. All my horses know they must turn and face me when I approach. A subtle positioning but it is meaningful in horse language.

Facial movements:

Some facial movements make it easy to discern emotions in humans but did you know that hand to lip/nose/chin postures, while speaking, can be a sign of dishonesty? Subconciously, the speaker touches the offending part of his body--his lying lips! Gonna keep an eye on this next time I buy a used car. One thing to love about horses is that they cannot lie. While certainly different than human beings, they still communicate with facial expressions. My favorite is pursing the lips. Tango does this only when he is very angry. If his lips are pursed, you better be ready for a show down! Eli purses his lips to communicate tension and discomfort. He may be standing quietly but if his lips are clenched, he's unhappy. All horses show comfort and understanding/acceptance by licking and chewing, something only possible with relaxed lips.

Eye contact:

An obvious one. We look those we value in the eye--"The eyes are the window to the soul." Lying, distressed, and uncomfortable souls do not seek eye contact. This is true in horses, as well. The distinct difference in equines, however, is that horses use focused eye contact to pressure eachother. Just one look can move a horse to the other side of the corral. For human to horse communication, it is wise to use eye contact carefully. With trained horses, regular insistence on eye contact while handling on the ground can be a safety and respect issue--"Two eyes on the trainer."

On inauguration day, I'm thinking of past presidents and their different posturing. Some were more expressive (not to mention honest) than others. "Straight from the horse's mouth?" Think I'll be watching his body language.

Monday, January 12, 2009


Suzanne* and I were forced to work together in a church program, some years ago. I say forced but we were volunteers, attempting to serve God in some meaningful fashion. The trouble was, I didn't like Suzanne. How's that for Christian sisterly love? She'd never done anything to me, on purpose, but I found her extremely annoying, her personal habits and ways of relating like nails on a chalk board. I'm pretty sure she felt the same way about me. After the "blessing" of working together, there wasn't much point in our association. Note to self: Email God. Request sufficient distance between Suzanne and I in the Holy City. Actually, now that I think about it I need to ask God for plenty of space in heaven, period. I'm on the anti-social side and don't want the saints butting into my private time.

Horses are never apathetic about the herd. They know they need each other. While they may render appropriate discipline for insubordination, horses are motivated to work out differences. No matter how irritating somebody is. A horse never thinks, "I'm going to go it alone; these folks drive me nuts!" Even horses with opposing personalities will eventually bond over time. The horse that made them crazy is the same horse they will whinny hysterically for when it is removed from the herd. "Troop welfare" is a concept understood intimately by these creatures. Human beings could learn a thing or two.

When I adopted Chance a year ago he had serious herd issues. Basically, he was a misfit whose social skills were never properly developed as a youngster. I wondered if he would ever come around. If Chance had been a human child his chart in school would have read, Does not play well with others. He would have had a special learning plan, been given Ritalin and often told--That's not okay!

I devised a somewhat different plan of social rehabilitation for the cantankerous ex-stallion. It involved dumping him into a field full of swaggering, unsympathetic geldings. One in particular--Tonka--had only recently lost his manhood. A muscular, hunk of a horse, I felt certain Tonka would school Chance on the finer points of equine social graces.

After about a week I went to visit Chance at my neighbors. From a distance I could tell he was slowly integrating into the herd, though my friend told me he was definitely not playing nice. As I approached I tried counting the cuts, scrapes, and indentations scattered over his body in varying stages of healing. It was impossible. And I had never seen Chance so happy. Though obviously guilty of many a faux pas, he was finding joy in relating within a herd. For a horse, nothing else compares.

Over time Chance has made great progress in his herd dynamics. We still keep him alone as he tends to cause trouble but he is able to touch Tango and Eli over the fence and enjoys their company. Recently I saw the first signs of affection between the three.

Tango has harbored a deep dislike for Chance from the beginning ( see post, Smelling the Soul). He reserves the ugliest looks and "talk to the butt" posturing for Chance (though everyone knows, in hoof to hoof combat, he is the loser). Tango's pal is Eli and visa versa--twos company, threes a crowd. That's why it was a surprise to hear Tango nickering warmly after Chance when I moved him to another pasture on New Years Eve. In the past Tango wouldn't have wasted his breath. Upon returning Chance, I watched the two horses banter over the stall door--Tango showing affection by nibbling on Chance's neck and face and Chance actually allowing it, bobbing his neck as if to say, "You're alright kid." Apparently, they'd decided to look past personal irritation in favor of companionship. At least for the moment.

Chance and Eli are still working out their differences. Because of Eli's gender this may be difficult but I have hope.

I talked to Suzanne recently for the first time in a long time. We actually shared an experience in common. For once I didn't find her completely annoying. You're alright kid.

Hopefully she feels the same way about me.

Saturday, January 3, 2009


I am not a planner. If I were, this blog would be freshly updated every week regardless of visiting inlaws (and outlaws), the Christmas Crazies, and snow the likes of which hasn't been seen in this part of the country for over ten years. Yes, I'd have plotted out my calendar and stuck to the schedule--Update blog on Monday.
Though I do force myself to deadlines when necessary, I am more of the wait-for-inspiration-to-strike sort. This is generally all well and good for freelance writing and other creative pursuits, not so good if one has dreams of getting, say, physically fit. If I'm bored, busy, tired, or distracted by rich holiday food tucked in the refrigerator, I'm not so inspired. Hence, the need for goals and planning in life.
It is with my short comings in mind that I approach 2009 (and a new year does induce inspiration). How can I give/achieve more in the coming year--more in relationships, physically, and in the use of time and talents? It seems if one does not plan to be inspired, and isn't inspired to plan, many worthwhile goals will be abandoned long before they have a chance to come to fruition. Perhaps the problem, for me, lies in focusing on too lofty a goal. Rather than daily committing myself to the written word and weekly/monthly targets I can reach, I focus on, say, publishing my book (destined, of course, for the New York Times Bestseller list and negotiating movie rights). With my horsemanship it shows up as attempting flying changes (with much frustration, for two years now!), rather than working my horse on the principles of collection at the walk and trot. Success is in polishing the details I am learning.
Success, I was recently reminded, is also in focusing on the small thing we can do with great love and devotion. As I go over resolutions for 2009 I'm thinking on a person I would like to emulate this year, both as a writer, horse lover, and human being.
Anna Sewell was born to strict Quaker parents in 19th century Victorian England. Sickly and insignificant, an accident left her permanently crippled at a young age (perhaps contributing to her never marrying or bearing children). Then, at age 51, Sewell contracted a mysterious illness that rendered her housebound. These facts did not stop her from doggedly pursuing the writing of a "little book" she hoped would move the hearts of horse owners to treat their beasts with compassion and kindness. No doubt there were more pressing concerns in society in the 1870's but Sewell kept her focus to one thing--changing the frequent, blatant cruelty against horses. This was perhaps best symbolized by the use of the bearing rein. This rein had no purpose save that of fashion. It kept a horse's head unnaturally high, the neck forcibly arched. Horses consistently restrained in this way suffered respiratory problems, reduced vision, and loss of balance, often resulting in pain, illness and death. Sewell abhorred the bearing rein.
It took six years, with much help, for Sewell to finish Black Beauty, her one and only writing achievement. This "little book" would capture the hearts and imaginations of people everywhere, becoming a classic, and no doubt helping to change the treatment of "dumb" animals all over the world. Sewell would never live to see the fruit of her labor of love. Five months after Black Beauty was published, she died of complications related to her illness.
When the last light of 2009 is going dark on December 31, I would like to say I gave myself wholeheartedly to even one true and worthwhile thing, no matter how seemingly insignificant or lacking in obvious reward.
In this way, flying changes can be achieved.