Monday, August 17, 2009

Rain, Swallows and What Are Horses For?

We've been suffering from a pretty severe lack of rain for several months now. The grass was beginning to get skimpy and dry, and there was dust everywhere. The only reason the plants have lasted as long as they have is due to our excessively wet spring and early summer - record rainfalls there. Finally, last night and this morning, we got a little bit of rain - just about 1/2 inch. Not enough to really break the drought, but things are already greening up a little bit. There's more rain in the forecast for the week, so here's hoping!

As I was walking back up the (somewhat muddy and slippery) aisle from turning out the last pair of geldings, I saw something wonderful. The mare herd was grazing close together, and a large flock of Barn Swallows was swooping in and around the mare herd catching the insects that were being stirred up. Most of the swallows were only inches from the ground, and moving very fast. They had no difficulty going right between horses who were only a couple of feet apart. The horses paid them no mind - I expect the mosquito, fly and gnat removal services are appreciated.

As I was watching the mares graze, very peacefully, I started thinking about horses, and asking myself the question: "What are horses for?" Horses are about other horses, and herds. Horses are about grazing - hay is nice but grazing is the real deal. Horses are about open space, and grasslands. Horses are about eating continuously, jaws always moving in a rhythmical way. Horses are about rhythm, and grace, and movement. Horses are about fear - of predators and unusual things that might be dangerous to them. Horses are about self-calming - their fear may lead them to act, but they settle themselves down again. Horses are about expressing the inside - how they feel - with the outside - how they act. Horses are about the colors of the earth. Horses are about interacting with the others in their herd - grooming and playing, and about playful behavior on their own - bucking, rolling, rearing, pawing. Horses are about vision, and seeing everything around them.

Horses most definitely, to my mind, are not about people. If you think about the earliest interactions of humans with horses - where horses were just another meat animal to be killed for food - it's no wonder that they're suspicious. Horses are not about bits, saddles, harnesses, carts, whips, spurs, horse shows or other competitions - that's all people stuff, done for people purposes. Horses aren't about horse trailers - in fact it's always amazed me that any horse will ever get on a horse trailer. Horses aren't about dominance - and in fact (sorry if I offend anyone) in my opinion the school of training that claims that we have to be the "alpha horse" and get the horse's "respect" is a projection of "people-thinking" onto the horse world and is based on a profound misunderstanding of horse herd dynamics. I expect that way of training works, in a mechanical and somewhat "forcing" way, but lots of other training methods that are much more suspect also "work", if by "work" we mean that the horse does something we make him do, or give him no choice but to do. Now understand, I'm not a horse, so I may be wrong about this, and lots of other things, too!

The only reason horses accept us at all - as opposed to just tolerating us or putting up with us because they have to - is because they are willing to accept our leadership, if we show ourselves worthy of trust. But we have to earn that trust - it isn't a given at all. If we can get the horse to trust us a little bit, we can begin to build on that to work with the horse, not just do things "to" the horse. To my mind, leadership isn't at all the same thing as dominance - or at least the "tone" of those two things is very different.

I don't know if any of this makes any sense to anyone else. When I see horses together, grazing, I realize that in many ways we are completely irrelevant to them and their world. To the extent that their world and ours intersect, it's very strange and weird and worthy of profound awe. We can't learn to think or see in the way horses do, although we can try to observe and understand to the extent we can, and I expect horses find they often can't understand us, but if we can keep reaching across that divide between species, as thoughtfully and softly as we can, sometimes we can have a conversation and even sometimes, in rare and magical cases, a partnership.


  1. wow this makes most awesome sense!! just yesterday, i was having a "mare's day out"... it was just me and alle.. we have a big show coming up but i'd finished schooling and we were just riding out in the "big bad world".. in between the monsoon rains we've been getting here.. unlike you it seems

    as we were riding back i just looked down at her and the pure simplicity and joy of being able to ride a horse.. not as you say the spurs, the bits, the "why is she doing this or that"?

    Pretty awesome, complex and simple at the same time. Guess great minds think alike :) :)


  2. Great post but your last paragraph was especially good. We are irrelevant to them in many ways, and it is a wonder in some ways that we are able to overlap our world with theirs as much as we do. "The wind of heaven is that which blows through a horse's ears" is a favorite quote of mine.

  3. Lovely insight.

    But then, how much more special is it when your horse sees you coming across the pasture or by the fence and comes over to acknowlege you. Not necessarily looking for a treat, but just a moment to share your companionship in his/her world. That's when we know we are worth something after all.

  4. Jean - interesting you should say that - today was the first day, ever, that Maisie has walked up to the pasture gate to greet me. Granted, she didn't have to walk very far, but over the years she's progressed from running away from me, to ignoring me, to watching me come up but standing still, to today, when she actually walked up to me. I'll have to see what happens tomorrow. She also nickered to me when I came to the barn this PM, also very uncommon - she always nickers in the morning but then I'm the one with the food, so I get lots of nickers!

  5. First, the swallows. I was sitting watching the swallow acrobatics at the yard yesterday and wished I'd got my camera. I love it when this years babies combine with their parents to fill the sky. But it always makes me a little sad that soon they will be on their way back to Africa!

    I'm sure what you say about what horses think they are for is pretty accurate. But the reality is that they are here for us humans. And sadly that isn't always pleasant for them.

    I agree very much with my trainer when she says "They haven't got a clue what it means" (referring to us "working" them). But she also says that the greatest way we can honour their generosity to us is by making their bodies feel wonderful with our equitation. I believe that we have to work very hard indeed, especially with our minds and our senses, to do the best for our horses.

  6. This morning I looked out my upstairs bedroom window toward the pasture - always counting heads in the morning - and all 5 of the horses were laying down in the front yard, which is open to them right now. (Cuts down on mowing & provides an add'l "pasture" this time of year.) Yeah, it is about their basic survival instincts. But, I got up & dressed & headed out to make sure the gate to pasture didn't get closed and they get up from their resting place & start to follow me. I hear a nicker, another blowing air. I like to think they like me for me, not just because I'm the hand that feeds them or scratches them. :)

    It amazing me how willing they are to please. To stand when they see me coming with a halter knowing that means work for them. To hop in the trailer willingly, without coaxing. To head down the trail, whether it be 6 miles or 20 that day. And then do it all over again another time.

    We are blessed....

  7. Beautiful words, Kate. Thank you!
    And so true.
    When your horse is willingly coming, seeking you out to do work together, I believe that is as close to a stamp of approval you can get as a horse owner.

  8. I think if you put food in front of a horse, EVERYTHING -- except the food, of course -- is irrelevant to them. :o)

    I agree with you that horses aren't about bits and other manmade things. But -- perhaps because I have a very people-social horse -- I see things a bit differently.

    While it's easy to say that we don't "naturally" occur in a horse's world, they have also been domesticated for thousands of years. It wouldn't have worked if there wasn't something in them that was about people. And I think once you have earned their trust, they will very much be all about having you around.

    Interestingly, horses may not be about bits and saddles and being ridden, but it's after a satisfying ride that Panama follows me around the most and is the most affectionate. I wonder what that says about what he's all about?

  9. Katharine - you clearly have a really lovely horse with a sweet personality - he is a great boy and you are lucky to have him!

  10. Kate;

    Excellent post and I totally agree about the mystery part. I feel similarly about dogs, cows and goats also !!

    That said, I do concur with the poster who mentioned that horses are a little bit about people. In my mind, a lot actually, relative to any other livestock species. As my grandad used to say (in full Ontario country parlance), "Horses take a lot more foolin' with to keep 'em right than any of the other critters on this farm. Could turn the rest loose and they'd live someway, but turn the horses loose and it'd be a bad end."


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