Thursday, April 23, 2009


A certain Spanish proverb warns that, "He who would ride a horse must learn to fall." I've learned to fall, thank you very much. In my younger years this included being bucked off, scraped off, knocked off, and hitting dirt when my horse ran off. My base of experience in off seems wide enough. In the last 15 or so years I've avoided the inevitable. Until last week.

Looking back, this episode may have been avoided if I hadn't attempted a training short cut. I say may because I'll never know for sure. Why cry over spilled milk, or spilled bodies?

Perhaps three weeks ago we put a running martingale on Chance. This piece of equipment is meant to prevent a horse from throwing his head up and avoiding the bit. Reins are threaded through two rings which converge in a fork and are anchored at the girth. There is no pressure on the horses mouth unless they throw their nose in the air. Then the martingale engages. Through leverage the horses head is held down. I've never been a fan of these sorts of tools. The old fashioned way of teaching a horse, through repetition, to yield and soften his face is always best. But Haley is small. I figured some advantage was an order.

At first Chance tolerated the new situation. Then he bucked off a friend's son. He reared, kicked out and dumped the rider. This was new behavior for him. The next day, with me on board, he tried a similar maneuver when the martingale was engaged and I toppled off (Can I just say that my butt was forced into a youth saddle and I had no stirrups--trying to save my pride a tad). It appeared, to me, that the action of the martingale triggered the same response--panic--that makes Chance sometimes pull when tied. An old demon we are still trying to exorcise. After exiting the saddle I removed the device. Permanently. For Chance, less appears to be more.

Haley was understandably upset. Not only had a spring trail ride together been derailed, Chance's behavior was unsettling. What was going on here and were we missing something?

Later on I examined my bruised body (minor) and faith (major). I suddenly felt very fragile and it had nothing to do with the fresh realization I can be injured on horseback. Was I using poor judgement? Had I wanted a happy ending for this horse so badly that I was willing to risk my daughter's safety? So many signs along the way pointed to Chance being a gift to me and Haley. Things it seemed only God could have arranged. We'd all come so far. But maybe not far enough.

I discussed the situation with my husband. Perhaps it was time to make some changes. Sell Chance and get something that will take a whole lot less effort. At this point a horse with one foot in the grave looks good. No faith required just a "sure thing." All it took was a thought of selling this horse and my throat got tight, tears a threatening storm behind my eyes. What is wrong with me? I've sold several horses in the last ten years with not so much as a tear. They all touch me, and teach me, but I'm practical about such matters. One can't keep every horse that sets a hoof in the barn. I've sold more charming horses than a certain pinto aptly nicknamed "Jack." (Nicholson. Think As Good As It Gets) Chance is not special to me because of some outward quality. It's what he represents--the beautiful and often fragile journey of faith.

Though I've felt strongly, from the beginning, that I was meant to have this horse, I've lost track of how many times I've given up on him. The first time came after only two weeks on my property. After a disappointing encounter with him I retreated to the house in despair. I'd made a mistake. I made myself a cup of something hot and sat down with my Bible. When I'm down there is nothing like the Psalms to refresh and remind me of God's heart and His promises. Here is what I read that day: I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will guide you with My eye. Do not be like the horse or like the mule which have no understanding, which must be harnessed with bit and bridle else they will not come near you. God the horseman. Love it. At the time those verses ministered to me in matters of horsemanship. When I read them again last week they meant something different. The bit and bridle leading me around are fears, expectations, and emotions. God's eye, his perspective, is different and I want to be led by that.

My husband confirmed this as we were discussing the situation, our hopes for our daughter through this experience, the fact that we may need to make some changes.

"Remember, Honey, you're only able to see this situation with your small perspective. God sees it differently. Perhaps there is a purpose in all this that you didn't consider."

Expectations. Always the problem for me. I'm pursuing a storyline like this: Neglected and starved horse becomes champion 4H pony for ten-year-old. I can be the beaming mother, proud of myself for plowing on when everyone else thought I was crazy. Instead, I'm the one feeling crazy, emotional, and faithless. I'm suspicious about what God is up to; ready to give up at the slightest opportunity (anyone have a nice, old horse that needs a home?).

Abraham Lincoln said: It is not best to swap horses while crossing rivers. Perhaps Haley and I are in the middle of a river. A river of faith.

Stay tuned.

Monday, April 13, 2009


It is hard for the Lord to use someone unless they have been deeply wounded.

I pondered these words after reading them in an online devotional several months ago. I found the thought inspiring. And troubling. The deeply wounded do not have a place of significance in society. They are at odds with what is valued in the world. Power and success belong to the strong, the beautiful, the "self made." The unsullied. Being wounded, vulnerable, stripped of all physical ability, is not too appealing.

At the Easter season this year I am not thinking of cute little chicks, pastel colors, budding tulips or large bunnies that magically deliver chocolate eggs. I am thinking of what I do not want to see--brokenness and suffering. These things have great value in God's reality. Why? Not because He enjoys seeing His creation suffer but because God loves to take what is wasted, despised and devastated and fashion from it new life. A heavenly recycling business where nothing is wasted and beauty is concealed within shabby wrapping paper. This is the real Easter story. The one that does not appear in large print on store windows.

Last fall, hunters in the Oregon Cascade range were startled when a horse wandered into their campsite late one evening. He might have stepped out of a horror movie. Face and neck heavily encrusted with blood, the horse's left eye hung lifeless from its socket. The animal wore a halter, lead rope, and full set of shoes. A crudely wrapped wound on his front leg further testified to human care at one time. The horse, though horrifying in appearance, was calm and friendly. He was later transported to Bend Equine Medical Center. What veterinarians found was astonishing.
Xrays revealed the horse had been shot, twice, in the head. Miraculously, both bullets missed the brain. He had been wandering for an estimated two weeks with a stinking, infected leg wound, a shattered eye, and a broken jaw. Fully half his blood volume was missing.

Veterinarians estimated the animal to be about six years old. Barely full grown. He had obviously been somebodies riding horse; following somebody trustingly into the wilderness to be disposed of. Why? There were a few clues. The horse was small, plain, and brown. A sway back--unusual for his age--spotted with white hairs told a story of hard riding and an ill fitting saddle. Then there was the leg wound. In six short years the horse had worn out his usefullness.

When the perpetrator was found out, the truth of the animals circumstances were even more disturbing. Christened Hero by his new owners, the gelding was one of several horses scheduled for disposal in an attempt to, "get rid of all the Arabians" in a local riding program. Wrong breeding, wrong owner; wrong place, wrong time. Some horses are simply unlucky. Or incredibly lucky

When the story of Hero's ordeal broke, people world wide rallied to his support. They found inspiration for life from the near death of this once unwanted horse. One letter, with no return address, came in the form of a Post-it note: I was thinking of ending it all, then I read about Hero. I have decided to change my mind. Thank you.

Says Hero's new owner, Kim Meeder of Crystal Peaks Youth Ranch, "It is amazing to see how God has used this horse to encourage those who are hurting."

New life after devastation. Beauty from the unlovely. God's specialty is vividly showcased in the Easter story of another discarded and wounded life. Jesus Christ.

The viewing of The Passion of the Christ was important for me. It wasn't like the serene Jesus statues showed in churches everywhere, discreet spots of red on his hands and feet, the stoic look of inevitability on his face. The grit and blood, sweat and tears--the emotion of Christ--displayed in the film rips apart comfortable christianity that sings familiar hyms on Easter Sunday and goes home to ham dinner and egg hunts. Leaving the theatre weeping, I thought I would be happy to never view the film again. But I needed to see the utter physical brokenness of Jesus. While I will never experience the violence of a cross, I relate to feeling rejected and broken. Sullied. I feel it and see it in myself everyday. Fortunately, that isn't the end of the story. There is a rescue at hand, a new life before me. Like Hero, I am wounded but not forgotten.

For more on Hero visit:
Photo of Hero by Emily Greene

Monday, April 6, 2009


I used to work for an internist who shared this bit of wisdom: Shopping creates a need. Do as little of it as possible. While I agree with his logic, it is an utterly male thing to say. I confess to doing my fair share of drumming up "needs" in life.

Advertisers know full well how to manipulate a very needful society. Those that market to horse owners are no less aware that to access our wallets (as if keeping horses doesn't require terminal seperation from cash) requires creating a deep need for their product, however ridiculous or unnecessary. A couple of weeks ago I attended the large yearly horse expo in Albany, Oregon. Ah, what bliss. A whole weekend of horse smorgasbord with nobody saying, in exasperation, "Are you thinking/talking/dreaming about horses again?" I took my daughter and hung around with two other girlfriends and their daughters. A (cowgirl) chick weekend. We watched demonstrations, stallion reviews, breed parades, and, the highlight, cowboy races. Then there was the shopping. Two warehouses full of anything and everything even remotely related to horses--tack, home decor, jewelery, clothing, you name it.

Prior to the event I'd taken my ten-year-old aside and given her a strict lecture. There would be no superfluous spending over the weekend. We did not need anything and would remain rock solid in our financial responsibility. The only item we might buy was a new helmet for her. I could justify that. Safety first. But "new and improved" anything we certainly would not be suckered into buying. I needed no $60 dollar handy trail saddle bags, no high tech riding tights. I would blithely walk past the newest saddle pad that promised increased endurance for my horse. He was on a budget, too.

Immediately upon walking into the "cave of temptations," I spied a group of fancy headstalls that sported ridiculously heavy and uncomfortable looking metal contraptions. The metal piece had the approximate shape of a rawhide bosal but it certainly wouldn't perform like one.

"Look at that," I said to my girlfriend. We examined the item, considering the reasons it stunk as a training aid and was a huge waste of money at nearly $200 dollars. Just then the salesman walked up.

"This is a terrific training device. Really helps to set the head. Horses and trainers seem to love it."

"Really," I countered, and proceeded to describe the timeless qualities of a genuine bosal, particularly the necessity of rawhide for the noseband. The salesman faltered before admitting he had never used the item. In fact, he didn't even own a horse. I was indignant. The nerve--what does he think we are, gullible! I was a mighty Oak, wise and immovable.

We continued to walk through the virtual buffet of equestrian items. I ran my hand over a lush merino wool saddle pad and fingered a fine leather headstall before stoicly moving away. I refused to be swayed by the smell of good leather. Next stop, a display of Mylar bits. I'd seen them in my local tack store but never got beyond my first (and last) thought--A hundred bucks for five inches of metal?! Why on earth would someone pay that much when they could pick up unwanted bits for 5 or 10 bucks at any 4H tack sale? I'd never paid more than $20 for one. Just then a mild, unassuming woman appeared out of nowhere.

"Are you familiar with Mylar bits?" She pulled a snaffle off the rack and fingered the roller in the middle.

"Uh, not really." I sensed danger. She continued talking in a gently convicting voice.

"See, traditional snaffle bits collapse fully on the tongue. The degree of tongue pressure prevents a horse from swallowing. In addition, the jointed mouth piece pinches the tongue uncomfortably. As you can see, Mylar bits also use tongue pressure but our unique roller protects the tongue and prevents the bit from fully collapsing in the mouth. Horses are more comfortable when they are able to swallow. This bit is less distracting."

I simply nodded, my Oak tree roots holding me firmly in place. The woman continued, in her quiet way, to explain the benefits of a Mylar bit. How they could fix issues such as gaping, and evading the bit. My horse would be more comfortable, more in tune with me, yes, finer in every way. Weakening, I shared a few training dilemmas. In a matter of moments, the saleswoman became my best friend and confidant. She knew to move in for the kill.

"I think this one would be perfect for your horse." She slid a bit off the rack and handed to me. "This one is very popular."

I gaped at the price tag--$94 dollars? Run away!!

"Expo price is 10% off. Plus you get a free hat." She smiled, genteel and affirming.

"Cool. Thanks for your time!" The strange woman inhabiting my body smiled at her new BFF and marched to the check out, bit and credit card in hand.

Two weeks later I show up for a lesson. Actually, it is for my daughter but Chance is the lucky recipient of a genuine, $80 (on sale!) Mylar bit. He is somewhat less proud of this fact than I am. Chomping on his new bit he looks suspiciously like he did the previous lesson when he wore a used $5 dollar snaffle. Roger approaches.

"See my new snaffle? Do you use Mylar Bits?"

A veteran horse trainer, Roger shrugs, reminding me suddenly of my old boss. He probably avoids shopping for the same reasons. "I've seen 'em. I prefer to use a regular old snaffle."

"Well, these are better...."I suddenly cannot remember what, exactly, makes a Mylar superior. It has something to do with the tongue!"They don't collapse all the way and don't pinch." I desperately wish for my new BFF to appear. Then Roger would see why the bit is essential. He might want one, too.

"Just ride with lighter hands." He smiles at me.

I wish we were born completely downloaded with all the wisdom we need to function successfully. Still, I'm thankful for the knowledge that comes in fits and starts along the way. I'm thankful for truth that makes a difference. With horses the most effective bit is always the invisible. It exists in the brain. For a rider, real skill and confidence come from deeper insight into the mind of a horse and what motivates behavior, not a particular tool.

Here are three insights into critical areas of my life that have helped me immeasurably, no gimmicks (or cash) needed.

Horsemanship: Don't fear movement or try to stop it. Movement equals the ability to motivate the brain--its a good thing! When a horse is moving forward a rider is actually in the best position to train and influence, even if the animal is disobedient/misunderstanding.

Marriage: Love is not a feeling. True love is an action given because it is right and good, not because that person "deserves" it.

God: God is a god of relationship; a personal God. I don't need rhetoric, ritual, or religion. I need Jesus. Through Him real freedom is possible.

In conclusion (see above photo):

Mylar Bit: $80 dollars on sale (don't forget the hat)

Quality braided rawhide bosal: $15 bucks at a 4H tack sale

The wisdom to use said tools effectively on three Arabian horses: Priceless