Tag Archives: natural horsemanship

Humanity and Horses

Bloggers are generous people.

One of the things that never fails to kick my blood pressure through the ceiling is reading a “comment”  that complains that the blogger’s new post isn’t quite what the reader “wanted.”

A lot of horse people write about our happy experiences with our horses right along with the not-so-happy. We talk about problems with equipment, we bitch about the weather, we whine about how hard it is to keep the Russian olives in the pasture, we wonder for the 3,000th time whether we should even have horses at all.

We wear our hearts on our proverbial sleeves, and we let you take a peek for free. Call it stupid, call it what you will–but the one thing you can’t call it is selfish. I think one could make the case that all horse owners are generous people–we certainly don’t keep horses around because they’re a good financial investment. Ahem.

Mugwump’s been posting about Natural Horsemanship lately, and some of the comments on her blog have been jaw-droppingly rude…everything from complaining about the topic du jour to more personal attacks.(Fortunately, Mugs is quite capable of coming up with amazing coffee-snorted-out-the-nose troll retorts.)

Anyway, she brought up something this week that I’ve been thinking about ever since I read her post. She noted that back in her day, everyone knew someone who had a horse who was willing to share a little expertise with the noob rider. She mentioned how everyone from the vet to her farrier to people she rode with helped her learn what she needed to know to become a better rider and keep better care of her horse.

Now, it seems, the world is full of people who have to pay clinicians and trainers in order to get that advice. I have absolutely no problem with people who are in the horse business to make money–more power to ’em. But I think the lack of community spirit–a willingness to help out our fellow woman–applies to a lot more than the horse world.

Back when I was a kid, the neighborhood parents weren’t afraid of hollering at the kids on the street if they saw we were doing something dangerous or stupid. My parents knew that the Reiners two doors down wouldn’t be allowing us to watch R-rated horror movies in their rec room on Saturday afternoon, and they trusted the other parents to tattle on us if we’d really screwed up.Our families swapped plates of Christmas cookies and garden produce. We stopped to talk if we ran into each other on walks.

Once when I was a newly-licensed driver, my accelerator got stuck (which, needless to say, scared the holy Moses out of me). I had to stomp on the brakes to prevent the car from lurching out into an intersection, and (with surprising presence of mind) I brutally threw the gearshift into park. Someone immediately stopped to help me–even though the guy had no idea who I was, he was able to calm me down (over the screaming engine) and fix the problem.

We call helping at accidents “being a good Samaritan,” but accidents (fortunately) aren’t a daily occurrence. Isn’t sharing our knowledge also being a good Samaritan? What about taking the time to offer someone the gift of a kind word?

Late last quarter, I was making my usual pit stop before the 75-mile slog home. I always use the same bathroom on campus at the same time, so I wind up seeing a lot of the same faces. On this particular day, I could hear someone in the stall next to mine. It took a minute for me to figure out that the weird noises I was hearing were muffled sobs.

The sobs continued while I washed my hands. I debated. Had I seen this girl before? I couldn’t see anything but her shoes.

I thought about how much I had been looking forward to getting to the barn early to feed the horses–the weather was windy and cold, and I hate feeding in the dark.

I told myself that it was probably just a student who hadn’t done well on a final. Then I thought about the students I’ve had who’ve had problems a zillion times worse than a bad grade. I thought about what it would be like to try to console someone who was crying because they didn’t want to go home to an abusive boyfriend, or what it would be like to try to comfort someone who was crying because she’d lost her best friend to a drug habit.

I ended up telling myself that the sobbing girl wanted privacy, or she wouldn’t be locked in the bathroom in the first place. And so I dried my hands and left.

The truth is that what I really wanted to do was clear my throat and say, “Hey, are you OK…?” But I was too embarrassed to break through that invisible wall that seems to have sprung up around all of us these days.

I ask my mass media students if they’re comfortable with the idea of living life in the virtual world–sitting in a box in front of another box (just like I’m doing right now, in fact). The classroom is always full of head-shaking when I ask that question, but I know that in a couple of minutes I’ll see another five kids sneaking looks at their smartphones.

If we don’t break through those walls–if we don’t take the time to be generous–won’t we be leaving some of our humanity behind? I can’t help but wonder what that is going to mean for our horses, too.

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The privilege of being a horsewoman

Working with horses is a privilege that I try to live up to. On difficult days, it can be terrifying and frustrating–sometimes both at the same time. Since I was a city kid who was only lucky enough to ride at Campfire camps in the Rockies a few weeks in the summer, I’ve gained quite an education the last five years I’ve had horses.

But ignorance does have significant advantages. I was lucky enough to have friends who knew a lot about what’s called “natural” horsemanship, so it didn’t take long for me to figure out that my job was to develop my own perception, not just make a horse do things. Kyya Grant, a friend of mine who has more expertise and skill than I can ever hope to have, once told me that working with horses was all about ‘feel.’

Who would’ve thought that “feel” means controlling your emotions, controlling body language, controlling intent–all at the same time all your consciousness works overtime observing what the horse is doing so you can anticipate what they’ll do next. You have to come up with different techniques on the spot (and sometimes in outright emergencies) if a horse doesn’t understand what you’re asking.

Dove is always teaching me how to think outside the box

Like a lot of writers, I have problems shutting off the part of my brain that’s always writing while I’m trying to live my life (it’s actually a lot like having an annoying CNN news crawler running inside your head all the time). I’ve come to depend on my work with horses as a way to turn that off.

It seems kind of silly to suggest that an activity that involves anxiety would be a cure for anxiety, but it is. If you’re loading a frightened three-year-old horse in a trailer–which means standing at close quarters in a metal box with an animal over five times your size and controlling your breathing and your own fear–it’s sure hard to be worried about much else.

And that is, oddly enough, incredibly relaxing. It’s a lot like meditation, and the sense of accomplishment when you can get a horse through something is quite addicting.

My farrier is a young cowboy who has a very hard time understanding what I’m “doing”…in his world, horses are used either for work, breeding, or competition.  He’s a quiet kid, but every once in a while he asks me, pointedly, “Soooo…what did you get this horse for…?”

I know what he means, since I used to feel the same way–that horses had to be doing something. Why? Well, these are not creatures you keep around on a whim. They need pasture, shelter, dental care, vaccinations, feed, supplements, regular farrier attention, clean water, worming, brushing, discipline–it’s a lot like having kids, and the expenses are actually pretty comparable.

It’s not that horses don’t have responsibilities. They do, and it’s our job to make sure they know what those are so they can stay safe and be cared for properly. But just by virtue of being horses, they require a huge investment in time and money, and I suppose it’s only human nature to expect something in return. I just get something different from them than I can safely explain to someone who has horses for traditional reasons.

I wrote a story for the newspaper a few months ago about a family that raised horses for competitions. I was really looking forward to meeting with the family, thinking we’d have plenty in common and lots to talk about. We toured their barn first, and one of the first things I saw was a beautiful black year-old filly stalled by herself in a dark corner of the barn with a dirty cribbing strap around her neck.

I felt as if someone had slapped my face when I saw her. When you understand horses, you know how awful it is for them to be kept stalled and without contact with a friend…especially when they’re babies.  I realized I had nothing in common with these people, who pampered the horses they took into the  show ring and who ignored the foals who weren’t showy enough to earn ribbons.  I’ve taken in old horses so gimpy they could hardly walk, horses with heaves, horses who were nearly blind and deaf, horses with teeth rotting out of their heads–all for the privilege of learning all I can about these creatures. And here were people who were destroying a perfectly normal, healthy young filly because she wasn’t the “right” color.

As long as we’re talking about ‘feel’…there is nothing like the feeling of watching your horses gallop in from pasture in the evening, manes and tails streaming in the wind, healthy, shining, filled with the joy of being alive–and happy to see you. I never cease to feel incredibly lucky during those moments out at the farm, and I hope I never lose that feeling.

That’s a lot worth more than any ribbon to me.

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