Thursday, February 25, 2010

Beauty in the small steps

Yesterday after I took the picture of the buckeye tree and came back home, I got to thinking that it might already have buds and that I hadn't looked closely enough. Today's first stop in the pasture was the buckeye tree. Sure enough it was covered with buds that I had overlooked. It was a good lesson for me in the difference between thinking I had seen a tree and a different level of seeing a tree. After examining the buds, I looked down by my feet...

...and saw the buckeye seed pods from last year sprouting with their own vigorous growth.

Here is the root of the main tree sprouting from the moss-covered rock. I can only imagine that a seed pod must have gotten lodged in the rocks and found some way to nourish itself.

Before I made it to the horses, I found another interesting phenomenon in the pasture. These leaves were decomposing in a beautiful lacy pattern that reminds me of translucent insect wings.

As I rounded the hill, Sundance came into view first. Her head shot up and turned my way, assessing whether I was friend or foe. In this moment I felt her as part of a larger organism called "the herd". It was like she was the part of the body who could see what was coming, and by her movements, she transmitted to the rest of the herd whether what she saw she judged as friendly or dangerous. The "herd" also consists of the two mules across the street and horse and pony next door who all keep a close eye on each other. I stood still to watch her assessment of me. After a few head bobs, she returned to grazing. I watched two little bluebirds in a bush between her and I. The also were part of a larger herd. Their assessment was to fly away and watch from a higher vantage point.

The horses seemed to be on a mission that didn't include me, so when Sundance cantered off to be closer to Patrik and Sofi, I followed them.

On the other side of the hill, I saw what they were after...the remnants of their oat hay breakfast. After some nosing around of the oat hay, Patrik spied me and led the herd at a brisk trot over to the rocks I was standing on.

It's a very typical thing that the horses will get close, but then go nose-down and start nibbling grass even though I can see clearly that Patrik's eyes are on me the whole time. I suspect that he is keeping this distance to give himself a chance to check me out and get a feel for where I'm coming from. Then he can decide if he want's to be with me or not.

He decided to come closer and say hi. I saw that the little ear flies are already out so I rubbed my fingers in his ears and disturbed their biting activities. As long as I'm gentle with it, Patrik seems to enjoy the itching.

Then I got down to assessing what the wet coat had dried to. Hmmm...I wanted to see if Patrik was up for giving me a ride today, but was I up for the dirt that would cover my jeans?

Patrik made my decision easy. He stepped over to the rocks and waited for me to hop on. He was more attentive than I think he's ever been before. We were able to walk forward, turn, and stop all on the first subtle cues.

The view from above.

After about two minutes of a fully connected ride, he went back to nibbling grass. I stayed on for a little while, feeling the muscles, bones, tendons, and ligaments in his back. Since I've changed my way of "riding" and no longer ride with a saddle, halter, or bridle or for more than a few minutes at a time, I have gained a new sensitivity for the structures beneath my seat. I have to also be intimately tuned in with his own feelings since I am completely at his mercy in this situation.

I have spent years now exploring for myself the question of how I want to be with horses and specifically the question of riding. The conclusion I've come to at present is that if the horse comes over to where I'm standing or sitting on a rock or fence, and stands quietly of his own choosing while I get on, then I figure that he enjoys something about what we're doing and I'll get on.

The next question is, when do I get off? Of course if the horse starts to do something that scares me, like trot or canter when I haven't asked for it, or go in a direction that I don't want, or not stop when I ask, then I jump off. (Fortunately I'm pretty nimble in such acrobatics.) The first times I did this I was startled to find that Patrik actually looked guilty, like he knew he had done something that I didn't like. When I jump off in those circumstances he always immediately turns around and follows me back to the fence or rock again where I get on and then he listens much more closely.

But what about the times like today when he just goes back to grazing, seemingly ignoring the fact that I'm on his back? I know that the structures of his back pay a price for having my weight on them so I try to use my own body as a guide. When my own seat bones start to feel a little pressure-sore, like I need to shift my weight, I will get off. At that point if I want to ride more, I'll go back to a rock or fence and if he follows me and repositions himself for me to get on, then I figure he agrees.

Today after I got off, he chose to remain grazing, so I snapped a picture of the faint imprint of where my leg had been.

I think I should mention that the way I'm riding is the result of years of work and re-building from a traditional riding background to where I'm at now. This is not a quick path to doing beautiful things with horses. There are little steps that can lead in this direction though. Anything that feels like more than a tiny and logical next step is potentially very dangerous on many different levels.

Find the beauty in the small steps and then when you look back, you will see that you have found a new path.

On my way out of the pasture I saw a beautiful scene of the sheep doing what they do best, Being.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


It's a sprinkly day today but the animals don't seem to mind. This is Sophie the sheep. I think she was hoping I had a handful of grain. When she saw that I didn't, she took off to be with her more skittish friend, Blue. Sophie is the only sheep I know who knows how to give hugs. Maybe I'll get a picture of what a sheep hug looks like when she's not so wet.

I found Patrik cleaning up hay under the shelter.

Sundance and Sofi were braving the elements.

One of the things I've found fascinating is to follow the horses around and find specifically which grasses and herbs they prefer. It's easy enough to say that horses eat grass, but when I look closely, there are many different varieties at different stages of growth. The horses are very selective about which ones they choose.

Here, Sundance is like a duck, nibbling grasses from a boggy area. Sometimes when I don't bring grain treats with me, I will see which plants they like and then pick some myself to feed to them. It never fails to be a way to get them curious about what I'm doing.

Today I was struck by the way the horses' coats looked in the rain. It's very different for me to have changed from being a person who would look at her wet horse and feel discouraged about how hard it's going to be to get clean, or what skin diseases might be brewing.... simply enjoying the colors and patterns that nature makes as she uses her ancient ways to shed the water.

Patrik soon joined us outside. The mud mixed in with his hair reminded me of the documentary I watched last night about Andy Goldsworthy called Rivers and Tides.

He's an artist who creates ephemeral art in nature like the work pictured below.

Before I left, I took one last look down the valley...

...and then to my right where a naked buckeye tree seems to be growing out of the rocks, flanked by two oaks. I think the buckeye will be the first tree to bloom. I'll check back and see if I can record the first buds heralding the rebirth.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A guest in the pasture

Yesterday I had a guest photographer and student-of-animals in the pasture with me. Emerald is six years old and very interested in the horses.

We started out sitting at the top of the hill watching clouds as we let the sun warm our jeans. There was a cloud that looked like a flying fish to me, and a bird to Emerald. Another one I thought looked like a dragon's head.

I showed Emerald how to use the camera phone and she got right to work.

When I got back from working with Sofi and Patrik she showed me the photos she'd taken, including the self-portrait below. I was quite impressed with them.

JD drove by and saw us sitting in the grass and stopped in to say hello. He even got in on the action and took a couple pictures on his own camera phone.

As we were looking at photos, Patrik came over and seemed to want to know why we were all sitting in the grass.

After a bit, I went back out to play with Sundance and then looked over and saw Emerald asking Sunny to sit, lay down, and roll over. I wasn't quick enough to snap a picture of that, but I did get this nice one.

Emerald said that she hadn't been close to Sundance before so I introduced them.

After about an hour, I took Emerald back home and said goodbye to the horses. What a simple and fulfilling day it had been. In the Path of the Horse video, Klaus Ferdinand Hempfling talks about remembering what it was like to be six years old. I am lucky that I have Emerald to help me remember.

This morning I woke up at about 4am and wanted nothing more than to walk down in the dark moonless night to visit the horses. I bundled up against the February chill and made my way to the sitting-rock. The horses seemed to have been waiting for me. Sundance was the first to approach but she was quickly herded away by Patrik who stayed by my side, nibbling at my clothes and then standing quietly as I sat on the rock.

Being with horses in the middle of the night is completely different than during the day. There is a different quality of stillness in both myself and the horses. I know that Carolyn Resnick talks about spending time with horses at night, especially ones that are hard to connect with during the day. I highly recommend the experience. I don't think I can do justice to it in words.

At one point Patrik found a way to get me to press into an area around the top of his tailbone. He backed up to the rock and very subtly manipulated his body to what felt like just the right spot for me to press, and then he pushed his weight backwards into my hand. It felt like he had an acupressure spot that he wanted stimulated. As he pushed his weight back, he rounded his loins and then released his body forward a couple of times.

After spending time with Patrik at the rock, I knew that Sundance wanted a turn. Since Patrik is the boss of the pasture, Sundance wouldn't be successful if she tried to approach me. So I went to her, and when Patrik wanted more of me for himself, I gently shooed him away. He knew what I was telling him.

Sundance was eager to stand with me. She gently nosed around and stood in her favorite position, with her head and neck over me, like a protective mare with her foal. She very gently nuzzled around my body and breathed on my face. When I got tired of standing, I made my way back to the rock and Sundance quickly walked after me. She is still very tentative about some of my touches but we spent some time working out just what she wanted from me.

We have such a long history of me forcing myself on her that I still wonder about how she seems to love and want to be with me just the same.

As she stood near me, her ears flickered back and forth, seeming to take note of the wakings of the day.

The sun put on a beautiful show as the earth turned to reveal her majesty.

Patrik knew that this was the time to be let out into the larger pasture. As the spinning earth revealed the sun, Patrik had been standing near the place where he gets let out. Somehow he must have known I was ready to go. He walked over to the rock I was sitting on and stood for me to mount him. I got on and he stood tall and nickered in that low, rumbly tone, and then took me over to the spot to be let out. I signaled for him to stop but he seemed to ignore me. He then took me to the other place in the fence where he gets let out when it's not so muddy. I wanted to take this opportunity to do a little training so I signaled for him to go back to the first place and then stop on my signal (a two-toned whistle). It was a couple of times back and forth between the two spots before he got the idea that if he stopped in the place I signaled, I would get off and open the fence for him.

The last time, Patrik stopped immediately on cue and I hopped off and opened the fence. The three horses made their way out and I jogged over to let the sheep and goats out and then back up the big hill home and into my cozy bed.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Sprinkles in the air

With sprinkles in the air and my phone camera on the cloudy setting, I got some interesting pink/gold pictures today.

I read this in the book Demian by Herman Hesse yesterday:

"Even as a young boy I had been in the habit of gazing at bizarre natural phenomena, not so much observing them as surrendering to their magic, their confused, deep language. Long gnarled tree roots, colored veins in rocks, patches of oil floating on water, light-refracting flaws in glass -- all these things had held great magic for me at one time: water and fire particularly, smoke, clouds, and dust, but most of all the swirling specks of color that swam before my eyes the minute I closed them. I began to remember all this in the days after my visit to Pistorius, for I noticed that a certain strength and joy, an intensification of my self-awareness that I had felt since that evening, I owed exclusively to this prolonged staring into the fire. It was remarkably comforting and rewarding.

"To the few experiences which helped me along the way toward my life's true goal I added this new one: the observation of such configurations. The surrender to Nature's irrational, strangely confused formations produces in us a feeling of inner harmony with the force responsible for these phenomena. We soon fall prey to the temptation of thinking of them as being our own moods, our own creations, and see the boundaries separating us from Nature begin to quiver and dissolve. We become acquainted with that state of mind in which we are unable to decide whether the images on our retina are the result of impressions coming from without or from within. Nowhere as in this exercise can we discover so easily and simply to what extent we are creative, to what extent our soul partakes of the constant creation of the world. For it is the same indivisible divinity that is active through us and in Nature, and if the outside world were to be destroyed, a single one of us would be capable of rebuilding it: mountain and stream, tree and leaf, root and flower, yes, every natural form is latent within us, originates in the soul whose essence is eternity, whose essence we cannot know but which most often intimates itself to us as the power to love and create."

With these thoughts swirling inside, I paid closer attention to the gnarled trunk of this beautiful oak tree. The lichen and moss growing on its rough nooks seemed another way into this visible yet invisible mystery magic world.

Sofi was the first to approach today. We played at the edge of nice pony/scary pony. Whenever she made a scary face at me I stepped away around the trunk of the tree. The photo below captured the moment of shaking her head. The horses seem to do this at the end of "processing" or rethinking something. They will often shake their head, blow a snort, and sometimes then proceed to nibble at some grass after I do something that seems to be meaningful to them. I am purposely trying to not speak for horses in this blog. I suspect that speaking for horses is a trap. An example of what I mean is all the times I've heard "My horse loves to jump" or "My horse likes his bit" or any number of other things that people say that may or may not be what the horse is actually thinking. I believe it is more valuable to simply say what happens and then let each person decide for him or herself what that might mean.

I treat Sunny like a fourth horse. When the other three horses have better things to do, there's Sunny, waiting to play.

I spent some time playing fetch with Patrik, Sunny and Sofi today. I didn't have much time though so after some scratches and goodbyes...

...I let Sunny lead me back, stick in mouth (Sunny's that is) to the barn so I could put my stuff away.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Rain acoming

I had some time this morning before the rain started to say hello to the horses. Patrik was the first to spy me and come running up. When he noticed that I didn't have treats he decided that he was more interested in cleaning up the hay in the corral.

This was the opportunity that Sofi was waiting for. With Patrik out of the way, she was the next to approach. She seemed happy enough to receive the scratches I had to give. My camera phone lens is scratched so that's why the right side of all the pictures are blurred. In the picture below, Sofi has positioned herself so that I can scratch her favorite spot, her tailbone and then down along her hind legs. Sunny is in the background, sporting his stylish raincoat.

I let the horses guide me to where they most want to be scratched. I think scratching is one of the few things humans have to offer horses that they truly enjoy for its own sake. Grain is another one of those things. In the picture below, Sofi shows me where she wants to be scratched next by nosing the area and then getting a blissful look in her eye when I hit the right spot at the right intensity. Imagine trying to tell someone where you'd like to be scratched if you don't speak the same language and don't even have hands to point.

Here is Sundance when I've hit the right spot. She extends her head and neck up and out. Usually she'll even extend her upper lip when it feels really good. This picture was taken when I was scratching her udder, a place that is nearly impossible for her to reach on her own. I scratched a tick off the area today. My horses don't get ticks often but it's been interesting to see how they have discovered that if they direct me just right, I will often find the area that they know needs attention.

I picked out Sofi and Patrik's feet today. Since they have a large pasture to roam in, for the past 6 months or so I've decided to see if they can take care of trimming their own feet. So far the experiment has been going very well. Their frogs are larger and have more ground contact than I've ever seen before and the amount of thrush is minimal. I may pare off some of his frog if the parts that are overhanging don't pull off by themselves soon. It's interesting to see in this picture how his foot is doing what it was designed to do to keep itself naturally trimmed. At the toe you can see the outer wall chipping off, leaving it flush with the sole.

Friday, February 19, 2010

One picture

I only took one picture today. It was as I was walking down to visit the horses in the dusk. The trees were standing silently with a glow about them. This picture doesn't capture what I saw but maybe it can be a reminder of this moment.

As I arrived in the pasture, JD was feeding them. I am so lucky to have someone willing and able to feed and watch out so closely for the horses. I spent many years with the responsibility of daily care for up to 13 horses at a time. I have found over the past few months that by allowing someone else to take over the daily care of my three charges, I am able to come and go at different times and investigate a connection that feels less like a worried mother and more like an explorer.

I sat on a rock and watched Sundance eat her grain while Sunny nosed around waiting for Sundance to get distracted so he could run over and snatch some of his favorite treats, COB (a grain mixture of corn, oats and barley). When Sundance returned, Sunny boldly jumped up and down and snapped his jaws at her, looking like a mini-lightweight boxer trying to get a jab in at an elephant. I growled at him and he obligingly bounded away.

There is a slowness to most of what horses do. It is a refreshing reminder of a gift that nature holds in trust for those of us who have sped up beyond what nature intended.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Gentle February

Today was bright and sunny with a gentle breeze and some puffy white clouds. I read from my favorite perch on top of the hill in the pasture. Sunny (the dog) uses the opportunity to survey the field. The horses are barely visible tiny dots to the left of center if you look below the road and through the scotch broom bush. The tiny grasses seem to be enough to plump the horses up. We're cutting back on the hay now that Patrik is on the verge of getting overweight.

I found it difficult to focus on work with the horses and take pictures at the same time so I snapped a few photos and then got down to the serious work of observing. I spent some time getting dried mud off Sundance. They are all just starting to shed. Their hairs will make some birds very comfortable in their nests.

Patrik likes to fetch things. Here he is bringing back the jelly scrubber that I tossed for him. We also worked on the spanish walk, crunches, ramener and moving individual feet.

I didn't get any pictures of Sofi today but she was especially interested in playing with me when she discovered that she could get to me before Patrik. I haven't written about her history here but she has been aggressive for the past few years. It has been fascinating for me to look behind that aggression and find that it has been based in fear. With this knowledge I have been able to witness my own fears and work it out with her so that she is able to spend more time as "nice pony" and very little time as "scary pony". It is dependent on how much time I can spend truly in the moment watching my own actions and reactions. It is a space where time seems to be slower, or more drawn-out and I am able to control which emotions I go with. That's the best I can explain it for now.