Tuesday, June 16, 2015

To Sit in Sadness

I’ve been trying to sit with the sadness this summer. The unexpected loss of a dear friend who took his life. The upcoming first anniversary of my mom’s death. The absence of my husband, who has been travelling too much and working too hard. The frustrations of learning to work with new computer programs and video cameras – poking me with reminders of how I’m getting older and can’t afford to be out-of-date.

Like a lifeline, my horses thread through each day, greeting me warmly with their “nmm, nmm’s” each morning, watching me drive off and come home like two concerned sentinels at my gate. At night, when I crawl into bed, I hear them through the open window, stirring and making comforting noises in the barn like the lyrics of a lullaby on top of the noisy chorus of peepers and locusts chirping.

There have been plenty of gifts too.  I’ve made strong new friendships with the young people and other amazing, kind souls at Blue Star Equiculture. I’ve discovered a beautiful web of women artists, many of them in their ‘80’s, who have a talent and passion for rug hooking and are eager for me to film them and share their art with the world.  Through Paul and Pamela Rickenbach Moshimer, we have met Grandmother Nancy Andry, an elder, storyteller and skilled horsewoman, who lives right around the corner from us and has re-connected us with Native American culture and wisdom. All the years that we were in California, we had Native American friends who graciously shared their beliefs and traditions with us, but we had lost that connection when we moved to the East Coast.  Now, through Paul’s urging, we have re-kindled it.

When Grandmother Nancy came to our house for the first time, my husband took her up on the hill above the barn to the cedar grove.  There is an old stone altar and a ring of stones that is buried in the earth.  She told us that she thinks it was the site of a moon lodge created by a small group of natives of the Algonquin tribe who lived in this area.  The moon lodge is where the women gathered to rest and teach their wisdom. No men were allowed. At the time of a woman’s menses, she would go there to honor the last cycle of the moon, gain strength from Mother Earth and talk to her sisters and elders. It was a way to revitalize herself.  It makes sense to me.

Later in the summer, on Saturday, August 22, Grandmother Nancy will be doing storytelling for children and families, spending time with the big horses and enjoying the magic of Blue Star.  I hope that you will be able to join all of us. More details will follow.  We believe in the good things coming.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Holding Up the Mirror

When we arrived at Blue Star Equiculture a couple of weekends ago for the Medicine Wheel Workshop with Chief Phillip Whiteman Jr. and Lynette Two Bulls, the first thing that I did was go see Tex, the leader of the BSE herd.   Tex was having a hard time that afternoon because one of his favorite horse buddies had just left the farm.  As soon as I came to the paddock, Tex ran right to the fence to meet me, and we had a very emotional encounter.  My heart went out to him, and he responded by licking my hands, never biting me, but really covering every finger with his big wet tongue.

The rest of the weekend is very difficult for me to put into words.  I tried to soak up everything that Phillip and Lynette presented like I was a sponge.  Then, I went home to my horses and my life and have been trying to process the changes and the contradictions and the insights that I was fortunate enough to have been given.  One of the ideas that they repeatedly expressed was that whomever we are interacting with - human or horse - is presenting us with a mirror reflecting back our own mindset and emotions.

I have been thinking about this concept as I go through my daily encounters with my family and my horses, considering carefully whether their reaction to what I say and do is a reflection –especially if it annoys me or I disagree with it – of some related aspect within myself that I have trouble facing up to and owning. 

Today, Siete was especially pushy and rudely barged between me and her mother.  She refused to let me put on her fly mask, something that she usually welcomes as a relief from the irritating “no see ‘ems”. Normally, she comes to me and bends her head down soI can cover her ears with the mask. Instead, she ran away from me. I kept trying to understand what I should see reflected about myself in her behavior.  I didn’t feel belligerent or uppity. If anything, I felt tired, preoccupied and rather weak.  It was the opposite, it seemed to me, not the mirror.  

Then, I came inside and looked at these photos of me and Tex, and I remembered how I was feeling as I ran out to greet him.  It was a pure rush of love, and I had a true understanding of how one feels when someone you care about deeply is suddenly gone.  I felt Tex’s pain and offered him friendship and love.  That’s what Tex saw in the mirror as I approached him.  As Chief Phillip said, “You can’t give what you don’t have.”   I wasn’t giving Siete anything this morning, except weary, distracted energy. No wonder she ran away and wanted nothing to do with that. 

"Horses know what you know, and they know what you don't know," the Horse Medicine man told us.  I’m trying, Siete, I’m learning.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

A Lesson from Sonny

I am finding myself at a loss for words recently. And I don’t miss them. There is something important that I need to find in the space where there is no speaking or writing.  I discovered this while I was up at Blue Star Equiculture a few weeks ago, working on a project with Pamela and Paul.  As I was videotaping a group of Ag students who were taking a class on working with draft horses, I saw that the moments that were most expressive and beautiful were the one where people and horses were communicating without speaking. 

Pamela gives everyone who comes there the opportunity to open themselves up to new experiences, which can sort of naturally leads to facing one’s fears. It occurs in a remarkable atmosphere of no pressure or expectations or judgment, with an enormous amount of encouragement and freedom.  That was how I found myself in a stall with Sonny, the young stallion rescued from near starvation who was so weak that he fell and fractured his pelvis a few months ago.  One morning, when I asked Pamela if she needed help, she suggested that I groom Sonny and rub him down with towels soaked in warm water and Absorbine. 

Sonny is a sweetheart, with a twinkle of mischief and a fair dose of pent-up energy, healing and feeling frisky after being confined for so long as part of his recovery process.  The grooming was not a problem since I did not feel any anxiety about doing it.  The rubdown with the towels was more challenging.  Sonny was safely haltered and tied with a lead rope, so all he could really do was swing his back end from side to side.  As I lifted the wet, warm towel onto his back, I could see he wasn’t sure if he was going to like it.  Pamela magically appeared to stand by his head outside the stall and offer us encouragement. 

Gradually, Sonny stood still and started to enjoy the soothing rubdown. I relaxed until I had to go around to his left side, which was close to the wall.  I imagined him swinging back, knocking me against the wall, and I could feel my adrenaline rising. Ever since I broke my right arm, I have a serious fear of re-injuring it.  I stopped and stood quietly breathing, with one hand on Sonny’s back before I lifted the wet towel.  In that moment, I felt this strong similarity between Sonny and my Siete. She knows how to push my buttons, and I sometimes feel weak compared to her young, vital strength.

It was that moment of knowing what I was about to do needed to happen, but also seeing the potential danger if the horse decided to challenge me or over-react.  I had to step through my fear - not by pretending that it didn’t exist-  but by asking the horse to work with me to keep me safe.  It didn’t involve words, it involved some highly emotional silent communication between me and Sonny that permitted me to relax and trust him. He let me know he understood where I was coming from.  I lifted the towel to his back and rubbed him with it. Everything was fine. Still,  I knew I wasn’t done yet.  After doing that side, I went back around, re-soaked the towel and did the other side again. Then, I came back next to the wall and cleared my mind of all thoughts except for how good and healing this rubdown was for Sonny.  Later, Pamela reminded me that it’s not about the horse, it’s about you and what you are feeling.

So, since I’ve returned home from this visit, I’ve given Siete a lot more attention, telling her how much I love her, what a good little horse she is and how beautiful she looks. She loves it.  I realized that I have felt guilty for a long time about how I care for Silk so much, like a mother favoring one of her children over the other.  I had jokingly given Siete the nickname “Punky”.  She does challenge me regularly to see if she can get away with it. My reaction is usually, really? Why now, when I’m feeling tired or my arm aches or I’m in a hurry.  Which is, of course, exactly why she is doing it – to teach me to wake up, stand strong, be more patient. She's helping me, just like Sonny was. 

Pamela has been saying that Chief Philip Whiteman, the Northern Cheyenne Elder and revered horseman who is coming to Blue Star this weekend, believes that horses are the Creator’s Universal tool to help mankind be better in every possible way.  My husband and I will be meeting him in a few days to take part in his Medicine Wheel Model workshop.  I have no idea what I will experience, but I am going there with no expectations, an open heart and the strong sense that we are being given a very special gift.  It will be interesting to see what Silk and Siete think about it when I return.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015


Over the past couple of days, I’ve been thinking a lot about horses and acceptance. Silk and Siete have helped me find acceptance on two levels. First, I have a greater acceptance of who I am.  I began spending time around horses and finding delight in them way back when my mother used to push me in a baby stroller to a pasture near our home to visit the horses that lived there.  As I grew older, I seemed to always be around adults, especially my mother, who could be very judgmental and critical and who had expectations about what they wanted me to be, even if that wasn’t really who I was.  This was never true at the barn, where I spent as much time as possible. The horses just accepted me.  In fact, no matter where they are, horses have always welcomed me. They have never tried to exclude me or judge me, and their curiosity awakens my curiosity. It stimulates my awareness of the smallest details and the slightest nuances.  They fine tune me.

The second level of finding acceptance came when I bought Silk.  I was going through a rough time in my life, full of  tumultuous emotions and betrayals, and found myself often unable to control what was happening, no matter how hard I tried to change it. Silk showed me that she could accept what had happened to her – a man had badly beaten her – but not let it break her spirit. Despite how humans had hurt her, she was willing to accept my friendship and trust me.  One day, while I was brushing her, I was jolted by the realization that I didn’t always have to like what was happening to me, but in order to move forward, I had to accept it.  Even now, my horses, day in and day out, express acceptance and tolerance.  They see the world as it is, and they make the best of it. They remind me that I have to do that too.

It is very understandable to me why women and girls are so drawn to horses. These big powerful creatures are willing to simply accept human beings and do not see them as flawed. People who are afraid or regarded by others in our society as weak or insignificant or damaged are able to find their power while they are relating to a horse.  The horse is “other-centered”, not  “self-centered” -- without an ego or an axe to grind. Anyone who is “hyper-vigilant” shares a sharp awareness with every horse (and that includes not only people with PTSD or those who have been abused, but any woman or girl who knows the fear of walking alone in the dark or getting into an elevator with a stranger). Being on a horse gives a person power and strength that they probably don’t feel on the ground standing on only two little human feet.  On the back of a horse, joined together, you can run like the wind and jump so high it feels like you are flying. You can escape and you can overcome and you can be free from whatever confines you.  You can give a horse as much love as you want and feel appreciated and accepted and needed in ways that most humans are hesitant to share with each other.

Just thinking about how much my horses give me makes me want to run right out to the barn and thank them. What did we humans do to deserve such a gift?

Friday, March 20, 2015

The Challenger

Most mornings, I stagger out to the barn after gulping down a half of a cup of coffee, feed breakfast to the horses and open the stall doors without much consciousness.  I will notice the sunrise or the symphony of the birds but my brain is still on auto-pilot.  And usually, it doesn’t matter. The horses greet me with their welcoming murmurs, nnnmmmh, nnnnmmmh, and bury their noses into the good green hay. 

So this week, when Siete decided to mix things up, I wasn’t at all ready for it.  I yanked open her stall door which sort of sticks because of all the ice and old hay on the ground, and she came flying out, bucking and squealing. Luckily, I was behind the door instead of in front of it or she would have flattened me.  This is not okay, I told her as she snorted, spun around in a circle and stuffed her face into the flake of hay that I had thrown on the ground in the corral. In my foggy mind, I knew I had to do something to remind her that I am the leader, and I had to do it right now. But what? All I could think of was to make her back up away from the hay and wait until I told her that she could come back and eat it.  So I waved my arms, made myself puff up big and stepped towards her. She looked up at me like “who are you kidding, lady?” I did it again, telling her, “Get back, Jack. Move it!” Siete grudgingly stepped away about three feet from the hay. We stood frozen in time for a few seconds and then, I thanked her and told her it was okay to come back.  Man, who needs that so early in the morning before a second cup of coffee?

Next morning, I was prepared for it. I heard Siete getting riled up as I opened Silk’s door. Her mother just ignored this silliness and ate her breakfast peacefully.  This time, not wanting a confrontation, I threw a carrot in Siete’s bucket to distract her. While she wolfed it down, I opened the stall door.  As I walked away, she came charging out, all fired up again. I ignored her and headed back inside for more coffee, but it worried me all day.  What would Tom Dorrance do? Or Mark Rashid? Or Carolyn Resnick? And why does my little horse feel the need to challenge me? Spring fever or is she just pissed off about all this snow and ice? Really, who could blame her for being annoyed.

Since the day she was born, Siete has known how to push my buttons.  The first time she reared up at the end of a lead rope, she realized that I was a wimp.  I believe that her purpose on earth is to teach me to not be afraid and to stand up for myself. Don’t get me wrong, she’s a very sweet, usually well-mannered little horse until unexpectedly, she gets a wild hair up her butt and does something frightening to confront me. In our little herd of three, she is low man on the totem pole, and her mama never lets her forget it. So, it’s only natural that she tests me every once in a while to see if she can get away with it and improve her standing.

This morning, I was in no mood for a fight. I gave Siete her breakfast and opened Silk’s door first as usual. Then, I just stood in front of Siete’s stall, leaning my elbows on the bottom half of the Dutch door. She ate her hay, but I could feel her energy building as she waited for me to open the door so she could bolt out.  Instead, I talked to her. I explained that I was getting old, didn’t move as quickly as I used to and that it was scary when she tried to push me out of the way and if something happened to me, who else was going to get up this early and bring  food out here? So, she needed to re-think things a bit and give me a break. She gave me the evil eye as she continued to chow down. I told her that I understood how annoying it was that the pasture was too icy to run around and that more snow was coming today just when we thought that we were through with this stupid cold weather. But guess what?  It’s the Spring Equinox  at last, and we have to have faith that sweet green grass is coming soon, along with soft warm breezes.  

Then, I just stood there and breathed and emptied my mind and stopped worrying about what would happen when I opened the door. Siete settled into eating her hay, and the muscles in her front legs and neck relaxed. I waited a moment longer and slowly opened the door. She lifted her head and I said, “Whoa. Just whoa, baby.” She looked me right in the eye and didn’t move. When I got the door secured and I stepped out of the corral, I told her, “Okay.” Shaking her mane emphatically, my charming adversary trotted out to seize the day.