Thursday, March 26, 2009


I was not one of those spoiled kids who received a BMW on their 16th birthday. Even if my parents could have afforded it, they wouldn't have based on principle--You must earn the finer things in life. The car gifted to me on my sweet 16 was a Malibu Classic circa 1970's Grandma. Complete with powder blue paint. It wasn't sexy but it was sturdy, practical, dependable, and nearly indestructible. At the time I didn't care if it was stylish, it was all mine. A powder blue ticket to freedom. That car reminds me of my first pony, Sally. Minus the dependable part.

I don't know why Shetlands are routinely given to children. They are generally unpleasant little equids whose clever minds readily contemplate treachery. It doesn't help that they are often "trained" by children. This sets them up nicely to loathe small human beings. In my parents defense, they knew next to nothing about horses. After nagging them incessantly for a horse, they produced Sally, a small brown Shetland of unknown origins. My first tack ensemble consisted of a ratty bareback pad and those all-in-one pony bridle combinations complete with nickle plated curb bit. Armed with a few lessons, years of horse stories, and blind passion, I set out to make Sally my very own Black Stallion. Okay, even I knew she was no The Black but we could do Misty of Chincoteague.

For her part Sally remained oblivious, even immune, to my love and crude training methods. She had better things to do then fulfill childish fantasies. Avoiding my attempts to ride her was an art form. She might buck, bite, rear, or, my favorite, bolt into the nearest stand of trees. One moment she would be walking along calmly, the next I'd be hanging on for dear life while she tried to scrape me off on low hanging branches.

I hadn't owned Sally long when my city slicker cousin, Holly, came to visit. Of course she wanted to ride Sally. I'm not sure what was behind my adamant selfishness that day. Perhaps I felt overprotective of my Prize, perhaps it was the weather, perhaps I was simply too lazy to move from the front of the television and wrangle a cantankerous pony who wanted nothing to do with me. It didn't help that we had recently purchased a satellite dish (the Beam-Me-To-Mars variety from the 80's). Two words: Unlimited Cartoons. Whatever the reason, I told Holly emphatically, "no." She responded as childish relatives do; she asked my dad.

"Your dad said I could ride Sally." Holly marched herself into my face, smugly considering her victory. "Where's her stuff?"

I hesitated, smoldering in silence on the couch. How dare she! Then a delicious, wicked idea hatched in my brain.

"It's in the barn. But you don't need the bridle," I offered sweetly, "it will be easier to just ride her with the halter and lead rope."

Holly sauntered out the door, an innocent marching unwittingly to her doom. Suddenly uninterested in the television, I slouched deeper into the cushions on the couch. Forget a satellite dish, the show about to commence outside was much more entertaining.

When Holly returned from her "ride" she sported angry scratches down her arms and twigs poked out of her hair. I feigned shock and let her rant about my disobedient pony. Years later I confessed what I had done and begged Holly for forgiveness. We both had a good laugh.

Besides being nearly indestructible, a pony like Sally is good for gauging commitment. When I proved that nothing could extinguish my passion for all things equine I was rewarded with a beautiful bay Arabian named Sunfire. Besides standing in nicely as my own Black Stallion, Sunny actually liked me. This was a new concept. Though we had our share of challenges, our friendship birthed a lifelong commitment to this wonderful breed. I had moved up as a horseman. Kinda like trading that Malibu Classic, later on, for a 1968 Mustang. Sweet.

While perusing YouTube recently, I came across this short video clip. Yes, I laughed out loud and punched replay. Repeatedly. Here's to you Sally, may you rest in peace. I am afraid I don't miss you.

Monday, March 16, 2009


It is nearly impossible for me to read one book at a time. I inherited the need to read 2 or 3(or more), simultaneously, from my father. Also the tendency to speed read, read from back to front, and not finish a book if it suddenly bores me, regardless of how far into it I am. These traits were passed through the gene pool as surely as the shade of my eyes. My mother is waiting for the Book Police to haul Dad and I in for Failure to Finish Fiction (a non fiction failure is more serious). Currently, I am reading three very different books: Leave It To Chance (look for a review of this horse story soon); Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers; and, a true gem, Party of One--The Loner's Manifesto. A bibliophile, I especially love books that affirm my sense of self. Forget "Your Best You"(not on my reading list, in case you were wondering), I am my best me according to this unusual and delightful book by Anneli Rufus. Turns out oddball loners are not such a bad lot (the "lot" including Einstein, Dickinson, and Thoreau). I am embracing my inner me.

Throughout my life I have often felt alone but rarely, in fact, lonely. As a teen I occasionally went to movies and coffee shops alone. This was not because I had no friends but because I am invigorated by solitary moments. This fact is the essential difference between introverts and extroverts. Prior to marrying (young) and having children, I spent hours alone. Mostly reading and considering life as I knew it. Early writing exercises involved filling journals with overly dramatic, angst-filled poetry. We won't go there. As a grown woman I hoard moments/hours alone like an alcoholic hoards booze. Yes, I feel guilty about it. I am a mother, after all.

God, in his infinite wisdom (and wild sense of humor....gonna talk to Him about that), paired me with the most extreme extrovert in the universe--my wonderful husband. We consider our differences as one might examine an unusual and endangered insect under a microscope--check that out...Weird! After being married 15 years, we accept each others differences, even if we don't always understand them. It so happens we each have a child to relate to. This is funny and enlightening. A"Mini Me" to consider (though my son is not so mini these days). We have video of my son--described as an "old soul" when he was a toddler--sitting by himself on a sandy beach. Instead of playing raucously with the other toddlers he sits off by himself, carefully considering the sand spilling from his plastic shovel. My daughter, on the other hand, is always ready for action. She loves people and has friends galore. She is funny, charming, and usually "in your face." I suspect she will be the type of girl I admired, and felt eternally estranged from, in highschool.

My son and I understand each others need for space. We do not force the other to talk or be charming. We are comfortable plinking on our respective computers and meeting later for a quiet lunch. Occasionally we are talkative. This descends upon us like the flu--initially dramatic but ultimately overcome. My daughter is frustrated by the loners in the house. She adopts what I call The Favorites Game, when there is lack of conversation. This is meant to force interaction--Mommy, what's your favorite food, your favorite color, your favorite car? What's your second favorite, your least favorite, your...... She could talk Eskimos into buying ice.

While reading Rufus's book, I realized my loner tendencies are perfectly suited to life as a horseman. While plenty of extroverts own horses, the pursuit of horsemanship is tailor made for the introvert. Achieving "feel"--a term master horsemen refer to--is only developed from a lifetime of watching and working with horses by yourself. Nobody can give it to you. It is not developed en mass or understand cooperatively. This more than suits me. And I've never understood the need of the extrovert to have someone to ride with. Even less understood is the feeling that he/she cannot ride unless they have a partner. I have a partner. A beautiful, subtle, expressive yet mostly mute beast who doesn't drain me emotionally but rather soothes my spirit. When I was younger some of the sweetest moments on horseback were those spent alone, my horse lipping up crab apples while I lay prone on his back and considered the clouds floating above me. Sadly, though I often ride alone in safe environments, I rarely ride the trail "less traveled" by myself. Even with my other partner, Magnum (357), it is best for me to play it safe these days. But one day, in heaven, I will choose a noble horse and spend hours exploring some beautiful mountainous area. There is nothing like it.

It is great fun to consider the differences in my two horses, one decidedly an introvert and other an expressive extrovert. Tango, like my previous bay Arabian gelding Sunfire, is full of mischief and mayhem. He is a very vocal horse who wears his heart on his sleeve and abhors boredom. A fate worse than death is not a bit of work but a bit of boring work. Tango has been known to hold sticks in his mouth and hit his pasture-mate repeatedly until they noticed him (even discipline for insubordination will do). When I've kept him alone, he watches for me constantly, lounging in the corner nearest the kitchen window and nickering the moment I open the door. If I venture into the field he is on me like flies get the picture---What's your favorite hay, your favorite saddle, your favorite trail; your second favorite, your least favorite.....

Eli, on the other hand, is content to blend in and cherishes his space. Unfortunately, for him, he is tall, handsome, and very striking. Not good for blending into the landscape. He is a very quiet horse, even at mealtimes. I owned him for a month before he acknowledged me while feeding. In contrast to Tango's lusty, incessant calling--My God Woman, where have you been? I'm starving to death out here--Eli's brief "serenade" is a barely discernible rumble. Only occasionally does Eli pull the testosterone card, content to let Tango steal the show and pretend to be in charge. He seems to shun the Pomp and Circumstance common in stallions.

I looked up the word manifesto and good old Webster says: A public declaration of intention. A blog is pretty public so here is a loner horseman's manifesto. I intend to enjoy my horse moments alone and not feel guilty about them (at least I'll try). I will continue to delight in my extrovert gelding and cherish the stallion after my own heart. I embrace my inner loner cowgirl. A cowgirl/boy, after all, epitomizes rugged individualism and security in solitude. The Marlboro Man wasn't a joiner (though a stop smoking group would have been a good idea).

Community is good, community is healthy but I declare goodness in solitary moments.

Thursday, March 12, 2009


Like a million other horse crazy girls, Walter Farley was a favorite childhood author. I'm not sure how many times I read The Black Stallion. Let's just say it was more than once. In reality, keeping a stallion is not like it is portrayed in the book. It is more like owning a pit bull. A stallion seems to inspire fear and suspicion, no matter how well behaved he is. The unspoken admonishment: You better have a darn good reason for keeping this animal.

I never wanted a stallion. Never even crossed my mind. Though I do prefer "boys," a good gelding has always been my idea of a best horse friend. Until about a year ago, I knew little about stallions. They had a certain mystique and romantic appeal but I had a good deal of fear, too. I'm not sure why. The Black never hurt anyone. He was ridden by a child for goodness sake.

Then Chance came along. He was a stallion, not by any merit but by neglect to acquaint him with a good vet. Because of his state of starvation, I was unable to castrate him right away. This made me nervous. And for good reason.

I'd owned Chance a scant couple of weeks when I decided to practice some ground skills with him. At seven years old he still didn't lead well. Seemingly docile, I haltered him and removed him from the round pen. We began walking around the field. Chances body language was subtle. He curved his neck toward me, considering me out of the corner of one eye. Ever so slightly, he edged closer. I'll never forget the feeling that came over me. Though naive to the ways of stallions, I felt suddenly threatened as if the horse was planning something unpleasant. The hair stood up on my arms. Quickly I walked Chance back into the round pen. The minute I turned to unhalter him, he gave a sinister nicker and reared up and struck at me. Since that day I never second guess a horses body language or my gut feelings about their behavior. If I feel uncomfortable about the way a horse is relating to me there is always a reason.

Chance was gelded two months after I got him. He was the kind of stallion you want to castrate twice, just to be certain the jobs done. I don't take his attack personally; there is more than one explanation for his behavior. However, the experience is one I won't soon forget.

Fast forward a year....I find and fall hopelessly in love with a horse. He happens to be a stallion. Fortunately, he is a vastly different sort of stallion than Chance. I have immersed myself in learning about stallions. It is fascinating so far.

In the wild, a stallion is not the herd leader. They are the herd protector, constantly on alert for threats and vigilant about keeping their harem safe from other males. The documentary on the wild horse, Cloud, is an educational and entertaining look at the life of a stallion. I highly recommend it. What I have learned in the short time I have owned stallions is that fear has no place in handling and training. First and foremost, a stallion is a horse--not to be overly romanticized or considered a hormonal terror best kept in isolation. He has the same needs for security, guidance and companionship as any other horse. Stallions are different than mares and geldings in a couple of ways. Firstly, they are very sensitive. It is uncanny how a stallion can "read" his environment. Eli reacts to my moods even if he can't see me--he feels my emotions. A stallion also has a greater propensity toward aggression, especially if mishandled. In race horses, aggression is a desirable trait and carefully bred for. The stallion Hard Tack, known best for his famous son Sea Biscuit, was such a horse. Derby winners aside, a naturally aggressive horse is one begging for the knife, I don't care how fine he is. Every stallion should be handled with respect as they have an incredible sense of fair play. Some will not tolerate abuse and decide to fight back. Unfortunately, stallions are often victims of harsh and unfair treatment simply on account of their gender.

Fear is at the root of much of what is ugly and cruel in the world. In Brennan Mannings excellent book, "The Importance of Being Foolish: How to think like Jesus," he aptly describes the insatiable quest of human beings for security, pleasure, and power. Those needs are at the root of all behavior. Fear of losing them has spawned untold atrocities throughout history. People and things become props to soothe the fragile ego. I see this in the horse world, too. Perhaps it is most grossly on display in the handling of stallions.

If the phrase, "In riding a horse we borrow freedom," is true so is, "In riding a horse we borrow power." Nothing is more awe inspiring, more potentially terrifying, than the 1,000 pounds of raw masculine beauty that is a stallion in all his glory. Stallions are made to suffer, some permanently soured, because of human beings who admire this power but abuse out of fear and ignorance. The end-this horse will respect me--justified by the means--I'll beat/shank him with a chain before he has the chance to challenge me.

When I fear something I am in no position to think clearly but am operating in reaction mode, ready to defend myself against anything that is a threat to my security, pleasure, or feeling of power. That said, I think a bit of fear, a bit of humility, is healthy when handling horses--mare, gelding or stallion. Anytime I strap myself to a large, panic prone animal I'm assuming a good deal of risk. There is a reason horseback riding is considered an extreme sport. This should inspire care and devotion to good horsemanship methods. A positive side affect of a bit of healthy fear.

In Europe stallions are routinely kept as riding horses. A gelding is a rare find. Does this mean everyone should keep/ride a stallion? Of course not. And stallions like Chance should be removed of their offending parts post haste. My own future in stallion ownership is unclear at this point. There are practical reasons to geld and I have no dreams of breeding, especially in this economy. I would like to get Eli a bit further along in his training before deciding for sure. In the meantime, I'm learning all I can about stallions. As in everything, I commit to prayer and feel confident God will direct me, perhaps through Eli's own behavior. So far he continues to conduct himself as a kind, quiet gentleman who is a joy to have around. Seems even a horse knows, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom"(sorry, couldn't resist:).

A little fear can be a healthy thing.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009


The conversation starts innocently. Two women of one mind and passion discussing their favorite topic--horses.
"Tango looks good."

Horse people can spend hours discussing the particulars of equine husbandry, in details that exhaust the naive bystander. Sorta like a couple of guys lingering over a car engine. Got an Edelbrock, 4 barrel carbuerator in 'er. Expensive but worth it. Tuned her up yesterday and running good. Sweet.

In this instance we were discussing feed. Time to drop the A word.

"I think he does," I say. "Feeding him a bit of alfalfa."

My friend raises her eyebrows.

"Just until this cold breaks." I have to stifle the urge to speak loud and slow, as if she is hard of hearing.

"They don't need it you know. Alfalfa is not a natural feed choice for horses."

I sigh. This is a conversation we've had before.

I try to keep my sense of humor when it comes to horse keeping practices. Horse people are maddeningly opinionated, myself included. In case you are wondering, I know the best breed--Arabians; the best type of halter--rope and it must be yachting grade; and the best supplement for the coat--flax seed. I am open to supply answers to other horse related questions--saddles, trailers, hay, training methods. Really anything.

The fact is, many different methods can and do work with horses whether its training or general health and maintenance issues. Horses are individuals. What works for one, may not work for another. A good horseman is sensitive to his particular beast, open minded to new things when challenges arise. It is possible the way I understand something, the way I am comfortable with, the particular camp I squat in, horsemanship-wise, will not work for a new animal.

It is amazing how intolerant Christians can be toward different pastors, ministries, methods of worship and expression. I don't understand it/am moved by it so it must be inferior. This is a subtle and destructive attitude. Last I checked God is infinitely creative. So creative He never does the same thing twice. Unlike human beings, repeating the same thing over and over, sometimes simply because it is familiar.

I became aware of this attitutude in myself when hearing the testimony of a friend. A tough, "man's man," he did not become a Christian until later in life. This man told me, with tears in his eyes, about the day he picked up a Bible and read the beatitudes. The scriptures seemed to come alive and minister to him personally. He was broken, moved to accept the Lord that very day. Huh? The beatitudes? Was all I could think at the time. Don't get me wrong, they're poetic and all but able to move someone to a saving faith? Not for me. And not what I would have predicted to work on this tough guy.

Guess it's not my job to convert everybody to alfalfa.