Wednesday, February 25, 2009


There are some negatives associated with being a writer. Here are few:

1. It can be hard to maintain relationships when one is compelled to write about them constantly.

2. "Payment upon publication."

3. Lack of fashion sense (Its not okay to go grocery shopping bra-less, wearing ratty old sweats and garden clogs?).

4. Loner tendencies (emailing cyber friends doesn't count).

5. A natural, ingrained, even compulsive tendency to dwell on life, relationships, and other unsolvable mysteries--to an exhausting level. My husband calls this, "Paralysis of Analysis." Thanks Honey.

Writing may be a pursuit that rewards the deep thinker but dissecting life isn't always a useful venture, particularly when I arbitrarily assign value or motive to circumstances and people. Sometimes the clearest view of life is the one taken from a distance and evaluated at face value. Yes, it was a horse that reminded me of this.

Horses have excellent vision from a distance. An animal created to roam the countryside, constantly foraging, horses can see and sense things clearly from afar off. This dramatically changes when you get up close and personal. Like other prey animals, horses have eyes situated on the sides of their heads, rather than in front. They are nearly blind to objects right under their nose and must rely instead on sensitive whiskers and a discerning sense of smell rather than eyesight.

As recently shared, Chance regressed this winter after a prolonged "vacation." Totally normal for a green horse but frustrating non-the-less. At the arena one day my daughter struggled to get him settled. He seemed spookier than usual, shying at the most ridiculous things over and over. Even circling a barrel he's seen a hundred times was "scary." I watched him shy at some invisible inconsistency in the dirt floor, over and over.

"Ignore that Haley," I called to my daughter. "Keep after him until he stops that nonsense."

After about twenty minutes I'd had enough. "Let me ride him."

This accomplished next to nothing. The harder I tried to get him over his insecurities about the corners, the marks in the dirt, the barrels, the more upset Chance became. We quit with him in a lather and me at the end of my rope. As I cooled him down my mind probed the scenario. Chance was unpredictable. Also potentially unstable. Those were the "deeper" issues. I was foolish for thinking he would ever work out for Haley. We'd probably never be able to trust him. Maybe he was doing it on purpose to get out of work, plotting ways to frustrate me while he lounged in his paddock at night. I thought about selling him and constructed a possible Dreamhorse ad in my mind: Small, mentally unsound pinto for sale. Shies with precision at barrels, white rails, clumps of dirt, spiders. Experienced rider with good balance recommended. Get more exercise in the saddle!

A few days later we took Chance to a lesson. He was a complete gentleman, level-headed with a good work ethic. Not a spooky bone showed. Suddenly I had a thought. He can't see in the other arena.

The more I considered it, the more convinced I became. The other arena was naturally dark--no open sides or windows. Not only that, I never turned the lights on (I can save two bucks on arena fees that way). Chance only spooked in that arena, when the lights were off. Duh! A simple, honest effect of a simple and honest cause--lack of clear vision. Chance isn't unstable mentally or trying to frustrate me on purpose. He couldn't see!

To confirm my suspician I trailered Chance to a third arena. It was airy and well-lit but potentially scary in that it was new to him. I turned on the lights for good measure. Despite horses galloping outside within view and semi trucks driving by engaging their Jake Brakes, Chance remained level-headed and steady. I felt foolish (did I mention I keep horses for humility?). Also disappointed in myself. I never once gave Chance the benefit of the doubt but imagined motives and thoughts he most certainly did not have (and, as a horse, isn't even capable of having).

Of course, human beings are capable of motive and manipulation. However, I shudder to think of the hours I have wasted, the unfair character "profiles" I have created for others based on behavior I didn't understand at the time and over evaluated. While discussing a troublesome relationship, a good friend and fellow horsewoman said, "I cannot think of one time where dwelling on a persons perceived motive in a situation proved helpful." I thought about that statement for a long time afterward. She's right. There is wisdom in taking things at face value, looking at them from a distance, as it were, rather than examining it at close range where things are out of focus and I am easily offended. Allow a person's behavior to be what it is, without embellishment, until further information. That's my new goal for clearer vision in life.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009


With Valentine's Day still fresh on my mind I've been contemplating love. Real love. The kind all humanity longs for deep inside. The promise of this kind sells everything imaginable--do/buy this and it means he/she truly loves you. Its easy to label something as being ultimate proof of love if it is outwardly extravagant. Something that empties your bank account. An In-Your-Face freeway billboard kind of gesture. I have to admit I like those lavish displays of love. Who doesn't? But there is another sort that is just as extravagant in its quiet frugality. This sort is faithful, it does not give up. I call it Approach And Retreat Love.

Horses are flight animals, like deer. Easily frightened and overwhelmed, horses respond well to approach and retreat. Approach, then retreat before the animal decides to leave on its own. This is key. In this way, a foundation of trust can be built by not giving the horse more than it can handle at any one time.

After the basic biological urges of eating and reproduction, horses are most motivated by comfort and safety. It is the job of a good horseman to prove they are a source of comfort. The horse finds rest and safety in the presence of the trainer.

A fascinating tool, highly effective in training horses, is the round pen. A horse is worked at liberty in a round space of approximately 60 feet. The horse is free to run away from/ignore the trainer, as long as he wants. The trainer simply makes sure the horse does not stop his feet. Fairly quickly the animal discovers that his freedom is tiring. He discovers that while nothing forces him to relate to the trainer, the trainer controls the space in which he is moving. The concept of this exercise is not to tire the horse, it is to break through psychologically. No equipment or restraining ropes are necessary. When the horse is ready he will choose of his own free will to follow after the trainer. He discovers that rest and comfort exist only when he is by the trainers side. Watching a horse sort this out is a moving experience. It never fails to inspire me spiritually. Sometimes horses are not all that different from human beings.

Last month I sought the advice of a wise friend for help with Eli. This horse is truly my "heart horse." I feel it every time I am with him. While there has been improvement in his responses to me he remains reserved and careful. A horse not given to trust easily. I wanted ideas on how to bond with him.

"You need to go slower with these types of horses," my friend advised. "Don't always ask something of him or force him to relate to you." She further suggested I look for opportunities to "hang out" in his space, giving attention/affection in tiny doses and leaving before Eli becomes overwhelmed. This is hard for me. I want to hug on him every time I'm with him; lavish him with attention. Instead, I resolved to give her suggestions a try.

I felt silly the first time I dragged a chair into the pasture. Trying to look natural I sat down and opened a book. Eli wasn't buying it. He put plenty of distance between us and watched me carefully. Twice he took a step or two in my direction then changed his mind. Finally he ambled off and made a definitive equine gesture--he turned his butt in my direction. I ignored him but slyly peeped his way from time to time. Once, without moving, he swung his neck around, stared at me and sighed deeply. I could almost hear him say, "Weird." He never approached so I left him alone.

Soon after that I began working him in a round pen at a local arena. His character and spirit is open and very sensitive. He quickly sought my companionship for comfort and rest. I was thrilled. At home I continued to look for opportunities to pop into the pasture, rub his forehead or shoulder and leave before he became overwhelmed.

Last week I went out one morning and busied myself getting truck and trailer ready for hauling Chance to a lesson. Tango and Eli were working on breakfast in the back pasture. As I loaded equipment, I glanced their way. Eli had stopped eating and was watching me walk to and fro. He seemed to be thinking. I slipped under the electric fence and approached him.

"Hi Pal." I arranged his long forelock, rubbed his face, and turned back to the task at hand. As I walked away I felt a following presence.

"Do you have something to say?" Being careful not to startle Eli I turned to face him. He lifted his nose to my face. I blew in his nostrils the not too appealing scent of stale coffee. All I could see were huge dark Arabian eyes as he breathed back. When I turned to leave Eli followed me to the gate.

It is a supreme compliment for a horse to leave a breakfast of fragrant alfalfa/orchard grass hay for the company of a human being. I scratched Eli's chest, my heart soaring. He still wasn't ready for all my attention but we had made a breakthrough.

A caveat to safety.....
I do not recommend allowing a stallion to put his nose in your face. It is a good way to get ones face bitten off. I have allowed it with this horse because, well, it seems to be his thing and he has never shown a hint of animosity or aggression. Rather, he seems interested in examining my character in this way (see post, Smelling the Soul). The first time it occured was a week or so after bringing him home. He wanted nothing to do with me. He would not accept food from my hand and refused to eat if I stood by the hay. While outwardly controlled, he seemed deeply upset to be in a new situation with a new caretaker. Then one day, while bent over arranging his breakfast of hay, I felt a looming presence. Ignoring breakfast, Eli was instead smelling my cheek. I froze, not wanting to spook him but equally leary of losing a chunk of my face. He gave me a good sniff, then began eating.

With horses, the good trainer must come down to the horses level, must limit themselves to the horses ability to understand and process an experience. It is the only way to build true friendship, respect, and trust with a horse.

I'm humbled that God limits himself to get through to me. He is a master at approach and retreat. How often He must long to grab me in a bear hug, lavish His big love on me. But I'm easily overwhelmed. I can't handle the attention sometimes. So He gives me a little at a time, doling out an extravagant love in ways I can understand and accept, inviting me to approach, put my face next to His and breath deeply of His character. Eventually I can't help but run to Him, the place where all comfort and safety exist.

Monday, February 9, 2009


My daughter and I volunteer at a local soup kitchen. I say local but we drive 50 miles round trip. This for approximately three hours of chopping, measuring and preparing food for whoever shows up to eat that day. I sought this opportunity so my daughter could learn to serve her fellow man expecting nothing in return. As it turns out, I need to exercise this spiritual muscle more than anyone.

Finding an opportunity to serve with a child is difficult. It took some time to find any avenue where she would be welcome. Even in the soup kitchen she needs a lot of supervision because, quite frankly, the people who show up are not of the trustworthy sort. She cannot leave the kitchen or go to the bathroom by herself. I worried over the experience--was it appropriate, would she get anything out of it (important), would she be welcomed by the other volunteers, etc. Basically, how would this make us feel? Sadly, I spent much less time thinking about the people who might come and be blessed by our time in the kitchen.

Our first day she spent the morning making an enormous apple cake she would not get to see baked or even eaten. With quiet concentration she peeled mountains of apples, measured cup after cup of flour, and spooned up more cinnamon than I have ever seen in one bowl. She was diligent but quiet. When we needed to use the bathroom we walked past street people curled up on pews, the stench of unwashed bodies mixing with stale cigarette smoke and booze. She still said nothing. On the way to the car I tried drawing her out. How had she felt about her first experience serving the poor, homeless, and down trodden?

"Some of those people could get a job. Then they wouldn't need free food."
The observations of a ten-year-old are refreshingly honest and simple. However, this was not the warm fuzzy dialogue I hoped to have with her.

"Yes, well, that's true. Some of those people have made poor choices and that's why they need food. But, some of them have fallen on hard times and really need help. We're just there to serve. It's God's job to handle the details." Oh that I would take my own advice more often!
On the way home I felt as deflated as an old balloon. Turns out, I wanted something in return for my time--a feeling of well-being, connection, to know I'd done the right thing, for Haley to feel good, something. A worthwhile life lesson for my daughter would be nice. Especially when she is ultra successful later on and traces it back to the tutelage of her mother and time spent in a soup kitchen.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized how selfishness grows in the deepest part of my being. I don't need to consciously think about being selfish, it comes naturally. It often exists even when I am trying to do something "nice." In the end will this action make me feel good as a person, bolster my self esteem, give me purpose, make me likable, heal an inner wound? In essence, its about me Baby. These are the things I think about that I am not proud to admit. The times I have honestly, wholeheartedly done something for another human being with no thought of myself, my agenda or if that person "deserves" it are precious few.

Later I went to the barn to get Eli out of the pasture. I am diligently working with him--mostly on the ground--to build trust and a solid relationship. I have a definite agenda--all for good reasons-- but Eli is a true introvert. He often resists my overtures because he is a horse continually on the ready for the other "shoe" to drop. I may be nice to him (actually, I'm crazy for this horse!) but deep down he suspects I am expecting something out of him, something he might not be comfortable with or ready to give. He watches my every move with a quiet, intelligent eye and reads my motives so accurately its scary. He knows that our time together comes with a price tag.

Mentally I ticked off exercises I wanted to accomplish. I was hoping it would be a good day--I'd see improvement in his responses, some indication I was making a breakthrough. I wanted to feel good about myself and my horsemanship. As I brushed him I thought of the soup kitchen. Maybe my approach with this animal was all wrong. Maybe I needed to employ a little soup kitchen horsemanship to get through to him. Let our time together be without any strings attached of any sort. He didn't need to respond, make me feel good or give anything in return. This time would be truly about him, not my feelings, plan, or agenda.

I spent a long time brushing Eli. He hung his head in pleasure, drowsy in the sun. He may be only a horse but I focused on making him feel loved and secure for the little time we had together. I asked nothing of him but talked quietly while I scrubbed the rubber curry comb in circles on his muddy chestnut coat--"You're such a fine/good/beautiful boy."

We accomplished nothing that day. Instead of training exercises, I let Eli graze on the lawn for 20 minutes after brushing him. When I put him back in the pasture he lingered by my side, confused but relaxed and happy.

We are still volunteering at the soup kitchen. My daughter has not met any of the homeless, poor or simply financially irresponsible that come for meals. She is getting friendly with the other helpers though and loves the chance to cook. They asked her to bake that apple cake again. We heard it was popular.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009


It occurred to me this week that I do not have three horses. I have six. Each animal represents a natural horse and a possible horse. The natural horse is the blank slate, left to its own devices. Basically of little use beyond attractive lawnmower. The other, the possible horse, is the one I hope to create with time, love, and training. Something beyond the raw sum of its parts. Maybe it has a soulful eye--like Eli--or wonderful movement. Maybe the possibility lies in something wholly undefinable which defies the animals current state or behavior problems. There is a belief that somehow, someday that horse will develop into what it is meant to be.
I was thinking of all this while handling my favorite problem horse, Chance. The natural horse is essentially--hopefully--a blank slate with regard to training. A natural rescued horse is better described as Pandora's Box. Who knows what annoying, dangerous behaviors (often man made) lurk beneath the surface?
At the end of last summer my head fairly exploded with pride over the progress Chance had made. I do not know how or why this horse became what he was when I found him. Starved and mishandled for most, if not all, of the first 7/8 years of his life produced an aggressive and completely unappealing animal. It took six months of food and training for me to catch a glimpse of the possible horse that lurked within. I saw it when he finally learned to trailer load without a fuss, when he stood still on the trail--my ten year old daughter on his back--while a motorcycle zipped behind him. I saw it when the previous "puller" stood for 40 minutes, leg cocked, on a windy fall day as a little girl braided his long white mane (oh that every horse could experience the extravagant love of a child). Was this the same horse that once couldn't lead or tie safely? The same horse that attacked me unprovoked? My tiny mustard seed of faith paid off.
Not so fast Sister. Possible horses can and do slip back into natural horses. Like yesterday....
After a long winter break, Chance is definitely in natural horse mode. I have less than a mustard seed of faith some days. For one thing, the pulling problem I worked so hard to break him of reared its ugly face again (pun intended). I only have myself to blame. A terrible, preventable fright reintroduced the problem (see post, A Thousand Pounds of Panic) then last week an episode of Stupid Horse (affectionate term for an affliction common in equids) enabled him to get free a second time. I knew I was in for it.
The pullers I have known are one of two varieties: Clever horses who do this dangerous behavior in a calculating, thoughtful manner, and those whose brain seems to vacate their body entirely while they do it--like a bad drug trip. I recommend trying to rehabilitate the first type.
When I tied Chance up (tie high to something secure with equipment that will not break and keep a knife handy) I could see the plans he was making. His body language dared me to watch him pull--body leaning away from the concreted, industrial size post, whites of his eyes showing. Standing back and placing my hands on my hips, I also sent a message with body language--Give it your best shot Pal. A moment later he threw his body back, straining against the rope halter with everything he had. This happened not once, not twice, but four times before he decided that not only was the equipment not breaking, he had a headache. He finally stood, lips chewing thoughtfully. Natural horse becomes possible horse.
Ironically, I had my own introduction to natural Catherine a few minutes later when my husband and I got into a heated argument over something silly. Forget possible spiritual and mature Catherine, I was boiling mad and enjoying it, thank you very much. I took off in my truck, a natural little pinto tucked into the following trailer. The Bible says to be kind to your enemies because in so doing you will "heap hot coals on his head." This is meant as a metaphor. I had a more literal translation in mind and not for righteous reasons.
Later, after I had some time to ride and reflect I could put aside most (okay, not all but getting there) of my natural reaction. Chance, too, was showing glimpses of the horse I believe he can become.
Some days a mustard seed of faith is all one has to cling to but I choose to trust in the work that is being done and the One who is able to do it. I believe in the possible.