Hunkering Down with the Horses

Dartagnan in the snowThe wind came rolling down the canyon, rustling the pines and then spreading out along the flattened area where the horses would normally be grazing. We had been told a big snow storm was coming, perhaps even a blizzard. I had put hay in the two barns, hoping to encourage the horses to seek shelter in either one. Instead, I watched as the horses moved in a way that looked like they had been assigned places in the pasture. As if choreographed by some voice I could not hear, they turned their hindquarters to the wind. Then, they dropped their heads low, almost reaching the ground. They stood close enough to be companionable but not in a way that any of them touched each other. Then, they waited. There was no anxiety among them. No frantic whinnying. No white-eyed fear. They knew, deep in their bones, what to do. Turn away from the storm, drop their heads to protect their eyes and ears and noses from the wind and snow, and wait it out. The horses knew the storm would end.

I have learned many things from horses during my 20 years of researching the horse-human relationship from within Indigenous worldview, and I will be sharing many of them on this blog. One of the most important things I have learned is to listen to the horses. Listening doesn’t mean just with the ears. It means listening to their entire being, to their herd, to the way they interact with life without projecting anything onto it. I have seen horses react in stressful situations such as evacuating from a wildfire. I have seen them need to be removed from fencing in which they have gotten tangled. I have seen them give birth, and I have seen them die. They have lessons they can teach us for this time of pandemic. The one I write about today is to be quiet, go inward, and know that the storm will end.

Mustangs, horses of the Land, were especially made to weather storms. Their tails have a very low set, which allows it to cover the space between their back legs, keeping them warm. They have smaller ears, meaning there is less surface area to allow heat to escape. They grow thick coats that catch snow and ice on the ends of their fur and keeps their skin warm and dry. These are the tools they have, and they use them successfully because where they live, there are no barns and rarely any trees under which to shelter.

The horses teach us how we can weather the COVID19 storm. The biggest thing they are teaching us, a lesson that many people still are having a hard time listening to, is to hunker down and wait it out. Not to panic but to do the things we know we need to do until the storm is over. The horses don’t see storms as a disruption to their lives. They recognize that storms are a part of life. Illness is a part of our lives. It always has been. We have become complacent due to modern medicine but COVID19 is a wake-up call. We now have the opportunity to adjust our lives when this storm passes so that we learn how to live with and survive the storms of illness.

We have the ability to weather this storm because we can stay in our homes until this storm is over. We can work from home or we can take this time and do the things we always say we are too busy to do. We can read, exercise, talk to friends and family via the Internet, write poetry, learn a musical instrument, and the list goes on. If we are essential and must work outside the home, then we can come back to it as the safe haven that it is. We have the tools to hunker down. We simply need to recognize them and use them.

When the horses hunkered down for that storm in their pasture, they didn’t know how bad it would be or when it would end. They simply knew that no matter how bad it got, it would end. While we know that this pandemic will become a severe storm, a blizzard, we also know that it will end. And when it does, we will be changed, individually and as a herd. What we do with that change is up to us. Hopefully, we will learn from the horses so that we will be prepared for other storms.

 

Annie and the Apple Tree

Annie at Pond
Annie drinking from a pond.

From 2004 – 2007, Dawn and I lived on a ranch in northwestern Nebraska, doing work with our nonprofit.  There was an area at the ranch that had several houses and other buildings, and the main horse pastures were in that area.  The area around the houses had several apple trees that bore many apples each year.  The ranch had high game fence around most of the pastures because a previous owner had raised elk.  The fence went from the ground up to about 10 feet or so.  During he summer of 2006, there was a catastrophic wildfire, which subsequently led to us having to leave the ranch.   We let the horses graze in some different pastures near the houses after the wildfire because there wasn’t as much grass in their regular pastures.  One of the pastures was along a creek.

One fall day in 2006, Dawn and I returned from our weekly shopping trip (the nearest major shopping center was 70 miles away), and we sat in the driveway for a few minutes after arriving because we were in the middle of a horse discussion.  We sat there for about 10 minutes, on a nice early fall evening, looking out at the houses and lawn area, including the apple trees.

Annie eating tall grass.
Annie eating tall grass.

Suddenly, I realized we were seeing something that hadn’t registered for awhile.  There, under an apple tree, with her head held low and standing perfectly still so as not to be noticed, was Annie, my 3-year-old Mustang mare.  She had somehow managed to get out from the pasture with it’s high game fencing, perhaps by going under where the creek was flowing.  She had made her way to the house area, where she was happily eating apples until our arrival.

The most amazing thing was not her escape from the pasture, nor the fact that this formerly wild Mustang had stayed around the houses instead of going to roam on thousands of acres of open ranch land.  What was most amazing was that she knew we were sitting there talking, and she had frozen so we wouldn’t see her.  She was looking straight at us, with her head ducked under an apple tree branch.  And you know what?  For awhile, it did work, and we didn’t see her.  When the jig was up, we got out of the truck, and I haltered her and put her back in the pasture.  I still have an image in my mind of her looking straight at us, frozen, hoping we would be on our way while she ate apples.

 

Strawberry Update

When we last left Strawberry, Darcie’s communicative Mustang, he was quite explicitly telling with us that he wanted to be ridden instead of her riding her other horse, Karma.  The next day, Darcie did, in fact, ride Strawberry and later in the day, we did a session with her riding Karma.  While we did the session, Strawberry whinnied a few times from his shelter, where he was eating hay, but he didn’t even both to leave the shelter to see what we were doing.

Fast-forward a few days to another riding session with Karma.  As I was walking to the riding area where Darcie had Karma, I saw Strawberry outside of the arena.  I also saw his foot in the grooming box…again.  I asked Darcie if she had ridden him that day, and she said that she had not.  He was clearly letting us know that the important thing to him is not being groomed; he wants to be ridden.

I wonder what else Strawberry will have to tell us as Darcie’s equine journey continues with him and Karma?

Strawberry Speaks

“What if horses, along with other animals, are trying as hard as they can to find a way to communicate with us in a positive way, but because we’re so stuck on seeing ourselves as ‘superior’ beings, or because we have to feel our theories are right, we don’t even give them a chance? Well, for me, it seems that would be one serious lost opportunity. And I guess that’s an opportunity I’m not willing to let get past me.” — Life Lessons From a Ranch Horse by Mark Rashid

This is one of my favorite quotes by Mark Rashid.  As anyone who works with me can tell you, I view the horse-human relationship in a different light than most folks.  Chalk it up to the work I do with Native people at my nonprofit, Tapestry Institute, and the Native friends I have.  I believe that horses, when given the chance, are constantly trying to communicate with us.  I think that far too often, we don’t think it’s possible for them to do so, so we miss what they are saying completely.  I wonder if, when a horse does get through to a human, the other horses in the herd all call him or her The Human Whisperer.  What I do know is that if we open ourselves up to the possibilities, we can be amazed at the level with which horses are trying to connect and communicate with us.

Darcie and Karma, with a wonderful new beginning.
Darcie and Karma, with a wonderful new beginning.

I thought I would share an experience that happened just the other day that clearly shows that horses are capable of communicating to us.  My apprentice, Darcie, has two wonderful horses:  Karma and Strawberry.  Karma is an Appaloosa cross with hardly any spots.  Maybe two.  If you look really hard.  Strawberry is a BLM Mustang whom Darcie got as a horse she and her parents can all ride.  He is an older horse, spent most of his life on a ranch, and he is about as mellow and trustworthy as they come.  Karma is much younger (not even 10), has had a bit of a hard past, and likes to be the lead mare.  As you can guess, Strawberry has been the go-to riding horse for the past year that Darcie and her family have had him.

Until two days ago.

Darcie is restarting Karma, and we have spent the spring doing groundwork and addressing lead mare issues.  Darcie has done phenomenal work with Karma, so now, the moment of truth arrived:  riding.  We are going slowly because her previous training was too harsh, too fast and too loud.  This time, it’s bareback in a rope halter at a walk in the round pen to start.  The round pen is located in the horse paddock.  When Darcie had her first reride on Karma two days ago, Strawberry saw it start and whinnied twice.  He then went back to grazing.  Yesterday was a little different.

strawberry1
Strawberry communicating that he wants to be the riding horse, not Karma.

Darcie brought Karma into the round pen, and as we began to attach the reins to her halter, Strawberry came over.  The grooming box – your standard plastic box with a handle – was right outside the round pen.  Strawberry proceeded to walk right up to the grooming box, paw at it, and then promptly put a front hoof INTO the box.  He eventually pulled it out – it got a bit stuck, but, true to his Mustang nature, he just worked at it until he got it loose – and then proceeded to come from another direction and again place his front hoof in the grooming box.  After he took that hoof out, he began to inspect Darcie’s cowgirl hat, and I quickly took it away from him before he could use it as another way of showing that HE wanted to be ridden.  We moved everything into the round pen, and he eventually wandered off.

There was absolutely no mistaking what he was doing.  As soon as he realized that Darcie was again going to ride Karma, he wanted to make sure that she knew he wanted to be ridden.  Now, he had been in the paddock every time Darcie had worked with Karma on the ground, and he hadn’t done anything on those occasions.  It wasn’t about Darcie simply working with Karma.  It was about her riding Karma.

When she finished riding Karma – a ride that went just wonderfully for both horse and rider – Darcie groomed Strawberry.  We will see next time if that is enough attention for Strawberry or if Darcie needs to schedule in time to ride Strawberry after she rides Karma.