Cat Amongst the Pigeons

The First Family’s young “rescue” dog bites a secret service agent and the dogs are sent home to Maryland. Now the internet is ablaze with voices, most of them barking, why don’t they just hire a trainer?

As if a dog is a simple machine, a robot, and the right set of coding will magically erase all fear and anxiety, all unacceptable behaviour. If this were even remotely true, most of us would opt for robots instead of pets. The world would be awash with trainers who could wield their coding expertise to produce absolutely predictable behaviour in the new domestic cyberpet. 

My point is this: a young German shepherd dog is not an automaton. And, if, like the Biden’s young dog, he was plucked from a shelter and has a history of trauma or neglect or even simple dislocation at a young age, he is going to react to pressure from his environment. Most likely, he will react in unpredictable and possibly undesirable ways. He has little capacity for self-regulation; he is simply trying to survive the best he can in an uncertain world. 

I can’t even imagine my own behaviour, were I to suddenly find myself living in the intense pressure cooker of The White House. Surely I would be swearing like a sailor and acting out in the hot-headed way I do when I feel overwhelmed and out of my depth. The best thing the Biden’s could have done for their young dog, is to remove him to the family home, a known and predictable environment where he will feel safe. What happens next for Major will likely involve a trainer. I hope it’s a compassionate one, a trainer who understands the nuances of interspecies communication and uses positive reinforcement as a primary tool.

I have an uncomfortable relationship with the term “trainer.” Sure, there are many professional trainers in the world. Some would say that anyone who keeps animals is, at some level, a trainer. In order to live side by side with humans, animals must become accustomed to human contact, learn to to behave in certain ways, respond to specific commands. A well-trained pet is generally happy and settled in the human environment in which it is kept. We train in order to mould an animal’s behaviour to suit our requirements. 

I live with dogs, and I train them, if lightly. My dogs are a working breed, highly energetic and always on the lookout for a job. If I don’t provide them with enough stimulation, they will go make their own fun which isn’t always to my liking. They will chase bicycles and motorbikes along the front boundary, barking. Or lay in wait for the birds that roost inside our big equipment shed. As birds fly in and out at dawn and dusk the dogs will chase them, and bark and bark and bark. It’s distracting, but if I really minded the sound of dogs barking, I wouldn’t have them. What I do have is elderly neighbours who are perpetually miffed that I bought the block of land next door, and very offended at the joyful noise we generate as we go about our daily activities. So, I take the dogs for long walks down the river to burn off steam and I train them to “heel” and stay with me as I work around the farm. I don’t have sheep they can herd, so I encourage them to seek out and give chase to bunnies instead. They’re not hunters; there’s little chance they could catch a rabbit, but the activity is useful on two counts. The dogs have a job that they love (one that requires lots of bounding around and sniffing things out — the stuff that dogs are good at). And, by doing their job, they discourage the rabbits from burrowing in the paddocks and creating safety hazards for the horses. 

I can think of myself as a trainer when it comes to the dogs. I have difficulty assuming the mantle when it comes to the horses that live on my farm. Dogs and horses are profoundly different. Obviously so, in size. But more importantly, dogs, like humans, are predators while horses are prey animals, hard wired to flee at the first sign of danger. They are not domesticated in the same sense as dogs and as herd animals they thrive in the company of their own kind. I won’t be having a horse sleep at the foot of the bed any time soon, more’s the pity for this inveterate horse mad girl.


Horses communicate with each other through posture and subtle movements of their bodies. A mare might pin back her ears and poke her nose at a pesky youngster; that’s an obvious language sign to back off. Woe be to the youngster who doesn’t take heed. The next sign might be a bite on the rump. But horses regularly give and receive far more subtle signals. A yawn, a flick of the ear, a slight turn of the head and neck away from another horse — all signals among the herd that help to keep the peace or establish the space a horse requires within it. 

Horses don’t only communicate to other horses with their language signs. They also have a complex set of signals which help them self-soothe, easing tension and anxiety. Rubbing the muzzle on a front leg is a way of discharging the mental and physical tension that builds for a horse during a training session. Dropping and rolling or shaking the head, neck and back act as a reset for the autonomic nervous system. When we say to someone who is upset or anxious, “shake it off” we may mean it metaphorically. The horse does this literally, a good shake releases tension and helps return the horse to his para-sympathetic system, the “rest and digest”end of the autonomic nervous spectrum. 

Being subject to predation, horses are guided by primal instincts, the most common that of survival. When faced with the possibility of a threat, horses react quickly. Knowing how to be safe around horses is fundamental to keeping them. Reading their language signs and calming signals is as important as being aware of the environment and any potential triggering dangers. And yet, astoundingly, the vast majority of people who keep horses have little understanding of their language signs. We know this primarily because people, even trained professionals, don’t always see the subtle signs that indicate that a horse is in pain.

Imagine this: you are a prey animal. You live in a herd. You are at once a sentry on the lookout for danger and also a passive supporter, helping to keep the peace. If you stumble and strain a tendon, or get a rock imbedded in your hoof, your tendency is to carry on, masking the pain so as not to disclose your vulnerability. A lame horse attracts predators. Obvious lameness threatens the herd. It follows that if horses mask pain at all cost, it is even harder for their human caretakers to recognise the signs when they are compromised. When a horse pulls up lame, that’s a ten out of ten on the pain scale. They have a near-infinite capacity for self-regulation. They are simply trying to survive the best they can in an uncertain world.


I would say that horses train me more than I train them. Once I began studying the language signs and calming signals of horses, I began to notice how much my own horses were trying to communicate with me using the same signs they use with each other. And the more I observe, the more aware I am of how loud and brassy my own attempts to communicate can be. 

I’ve accepted the challenge to quiet down. I practice mindfulness as I go about my chores and interactions with the horses. I observe them carefully, without fixing them with “coyote eyes.” I attempt to give them the time and space they need to process, to offer an answer, to relax. I try to enter into a conversation in a language they can understand. I can’t flick my ear, swish my tail or use my teeth to massage their wither soothingly, but I can regulate my emotions and ground myself with breathing when I am with them. I can take on board the things I am asking or demanding of them just by being in their space, and step back when they so quietly and politely ask.

I’ve come to understand that living with humans is inherently stressful for horses. No matter how deep their knowledge of us, their trust in the environment we provide for them, we will always be the cat amongst the pigeons. And because I love my horses, I desire change. My goal is to cause my horses as little stress as possible: to enable them to feel good in their bodies, provide them space to move and the company of others, feed them appropriately (not too much and not too little, with variety and regularity, not chopping and changing on a whim). For my riding horse, I endeavour to provide exercise that helps him relax and become more supple — as, just like us, horses become stiff with age and lack of exercise — but I never drill him. I like to regularly try new things (novelty is key for curiosity, which is what makes the brain ready for learning), but I’m careful not to over-face either him or me. Fear and anxiety are closely linked and kill the “try” every time. I listen to his language signs and vow to be happy to just do nothing on those days when — for whatever reason — he really doesn’t want to participate. 

I go to the paddock with the halter slung over my shoulder. I ground my feet on the earth and breathe deep into my belly. I check out where the horses are, and make my way to them walking purposefully but in a relaxed fashion, tracing arcs rather than bee-lining straight at them. If you watch horses in herds, they often move in arcs in and amongst each other and as a group. This indirect approach has a variety of benefits. Horses see best when you approach them side on, as the monocular aspect of their vision (one eye on either side of the head) creates a blind spot directly in front of them. The arc will deposit me a few feet off his right shoulder and signal my intent to have a conversation. Depending on the calming signals he offers, I may step closer to his shoulder, or I may step back by his flank and rest a hand on his croup, the point of his back near the base of his spine. When there, I am out of his space yet with him. I’e learned through trial and error that it is easier for him if I am further from his head when we start to converse. Outside of his bubble. Standing quietly, I exhale. I might see him exhale, too, or rest a back leg by cocking his hoof forward and dropping a hip. I’ll mirror this movement dropping my hip and softening my knees. He exhales again and I realise we are breathing in time with one another. There is a little electric joy that comes in the recognition that we are resting together peacefully. Sometimes this is when another horse will approach, and these days, Chico will usually stiffen a little, drop his ears back slightly and swing his muzzle at the intruder, telling them quietly but firmly to please go away. Usually they amble off. We take a few more restful breaths together and then I step to his shoulder, exhale again and do the magical thing called “asking for his eye.” This request has everything to do with intent. I must not drill into him with my predator eyes, or allow impatience to quicken my heart rate or my movements. I simply think something that loosely translates as “do you want to come do stuff with me?”as I glance softly at his eye. My little horse is coming to understand that there are a variety of ways he can answer that question. If he accepts, I’ll know because it will look like absolutely nothing more than a slight turn or inclination towards me: I will see his eye more clearly, he’ll look at me. I’ll place the lead rope which is connected to the halter over his wither at the base of his neck, and quietly open the circular nose piece and hold it, just so, and Chico will lower his head slightly as I slip the halter on.*

 I may not always get what I want in the short term. Doing things with my horse in this way takes time and he doesn’t always want to participate, but in the long term I get a partner who has a voice and I get the peace of mind of knowing I am not coercing him. He lives behind my fences and relies on me for sustenance. In all other ways, I am endeavouring to give him agency. 


Nonetheless, horses have to survive in a human world. They need to stand behind fences without getting tangled in them, be transported without becoming claustrophobic. They need to accept medical attention when its required, and be able to walk safely and quietly beside a human who is leading the way. For this, some training is absolutely required. It can (and should) be kind and take into account how the horse learns, of which we know so much through advances in behavioural and neuroscience. 

And although we have had huge breakthroughs in understanding, we also have a tradition of kind and horse-centred training that spans more than 2000 years. Xenophon wrote of training the horse with kindness, and underscored the importance of understanding its nature and needs, in The Art of Horsemanship written around 355bc: 

“If you want to have a horse learn to perform their duty,” he wrote, “your best plan will be to show the horse kindness whenever the horse does as you wish … a horse will more readily take the bit, if something good happens each time that the horse accepts it. Also, the horse will leap ditches and spring up embankments and perform all other feats required, if every time the horse performs the command, the horse is rewarded with kindness.”


Latter day Australian horseman, Tom Roberts, wrote in his 1998 book on The Young Horse: “If you are fond of a horse and wish to do him a real favour, train him well. Teach him good manners, good habits, both in the stable and under saddle. You need never worry about the future of such a horse if for any reason you have to part with him. You assure him of friends wherever he goes. Perhaps the greatest kindness you can do any horse is to educate him well.” 

I would posit that this goes for humans, too. If you want a horse to be a companion in all endeavours, listen. Quiet your own voice, and hone your observational skills. Learn his language, a language of gesture. His brain is not like yours, he not only relies on super-sensitive senses, but he processes sensory information differently that humans do. Often, he just needs a little time when asked for something. Give it to him and then take a leap. Check your expectations at the door. 

Get curious about the possibility of conversation.

With Chico and Whistar on a summer evening. Photo: Joe Letteri

Nota bene: I am indebted to Anna Blake of The Relaxed and Forward Barn for introducing me to the language of horses (calming signals) and to techniques such as mindful haltering described here. The changes in both me and my horse are profound.


It started with a little bay mare. She was 30 years old, blind in one eye, a tired school horse in a riding school barn somewhere west of Chicago. She was the first horse to steal my heart, and the first creature of any kind to break it.

It’s an old story and doesn’t bear repeating, but for her sake and to exorcise the demons of memory, I will. When not working, Babe stood all her days and nights in a straight stall. There was no turn out. No place to graze with head down. No time to socialise with other horses, to cavort or to roll. The workers at the riding school were told to enter and exit the stalls on the horse’s left—or near—side, and that is what the horses came to expect. But the left eye was her blind one, and Babe was literally blind-sided by every groom and grunt that slapped her rump to move her over so they could enter and do whatever it was they were charged to do. She would jump and tremble, the bad eye rolling back or pinching shut. And be growled at for it. Every time.

Babe was the lesson horse I was assigned. My parents paid for one lesson a fortnight and I scrimped and saved my pocket money for the weekends in between. After a couple of months, I was offered a position as a junior groom, more commonly known as a “barn rat”, doing odd jobs and leading horses out to the kids whose parents could afford more regular lessons. I wouldn’t be paid, of course, but I would learn and, at the end of the weekend, I might be allowed to ride one of the dead-tired school horses on the trails through the Forest Preserve out behind the stables. This was the one thin slice of freedom these horses had—to go walking and trotting through the woods once a week, weather permitting—and we barn rats were the lucky ones chosen to ride them out. I felt like I’d won the lottery: the position gave me access to the barn, more chances to ride and I was able to steal moments to lavish attention on Babe.

Our barn held little shows in which we rode in various classes and competed for small rosettes. In the one show I attended, Babe and I went round and round and didn’t get a look in with the judge. I didn’t care, I was riding. Riding without an instructor bleating at me. The show went on for a couple of hours. It was the longest I’d ever been able to ride, though I got off between classes and offered Babe crumbling sugar cubes from my pocket. The final class was something they called The Jackpot, and it was different every year. In 1971, The Jackpot was Bareback Pairs. My friend Anne and I signed up even though neither of us had ever ridden bareback. We weren’t a very well-matched pair, me on my 15hh bay mare and Anne riding a little speckled Welsh pony called Freckles. We had to ride a pattern from memory, like a dressage test performed side by side, without any practice, while keeping our mounts together and making all our transitions as smooth and well-timed as possible. And not fall off. If I’m honest, the memory blurs here. I don’t actually recall what it felt like to ride that course. But I do know how it felt to be presented with the two blue rosettes in the final prize giving. Somehow we’d managed it, and we’d won!

I don’t remember much about the riding at all. It was an “equitation” barn; if you wanted to jump, you went to the fancy barn next door. At our barn, young riders went around in endless circles in the murky interior of the indoor school. Parents gossiped in the mezzanine viewing area. There was a shop that sold stale candy bars, warm Fanta and a smattering of dusty jodhpur pants, chaps and stock pins. For me, riding was secondary. What I loved best was the physical work that took my mind off of my troubles, and the blissful, quiet contact with the horses.

Babe was a Morgan, 15 hands high, a very dark bay with a tiny white whorl on her forehead. No other markings aside from a few scars here and there. And then there was the milky unseeing eye with a halo of blue surrounded by impossibly long black lashes. I quickly worked out that I could enter her stall from the right, which was forbidden, but no one was watching me. From the right, Babe could see me coming with her good eye. No more jumping out of her skin every time a person came to fetch her. I scanned the duty board carefully each Saturday and Sunday morning and worked out exactly when Babe would be required for a lesson. I made sure I was on hand to fetch her, to give her a quick brush, tack her up and hand her, reluctantly, to the lucky kid who had money to pay for it. I would materialise again at the end of the lesson and take her back to her stall. I credit Babe with making me a time-based individual, pathologically punctual.

The men who were paid to do to the work I was eager to do for free were Mexican. I thought they were old because they were grizzled, a bit rough around the edges, often unshaven, always bent to whatever task they undertook. I suspect that if I looked in on that place today, I would be appalled. Those men, who were probably a lot younger than I thought them to be, had families in Mexico. They lived in quarters out the back, sent their paltry pay checks home and never talked about the families they loved and missed. Pedro, Luis, Jose. They were endlessly tolerant and sometimes unexpectedly kind to me. 

I was 12 when I started going to the barn, not quite 14 when I walked out of there for the last time, into the relentless sunlight with tears coursing down my grubby cheeks. That Saturday morning, I arrived at the barn and checked the board. Babe’s name wasn’t written up for any lessons. I was thrilled; occasionally they let a horse have a day off. I would be able to spend all my spare time with her, just mooching in her stall, scratching all her favourite spots. Talking with her in a soft voice. Confessing my troubles and my love. I headed past the box stalls belonging to the private livery horses and down the long, dark aisle of straight stalls. Babe’s was empty. I couldn’t make sense of it, so I ran out back to the yard where the blacksmith worked but no one was there. Rushing back inside, I was blocked by Pedro. He put a hand up to stop me. His English was not so good, but it wasn’t hard to understand his meaning. Babe was gone. Taken out back and shot because the vet said the eye was cancerous and there was no room in the barn or in the world for a useless horse. 


I didn’t understand it then, but know now that what I took for sweetness was most likely stoicism, her emotions shut down and her body broken by years of clumsy riders going around in endless circles, by a life lived in half-light, the expression of natural behaviours denied and little true comfort. Yet, Babe remains my talisman, my spirit animal, my totem guide to this life I now live with horses.

When we know better, we do better.

Little Flame

I went out to feed the horses on a mild Sunday morning. Making my way down the race between the giant Totaras, I found our 11-week old foal in distress. Her sides heaving, a river of liquid poo running down her back legs, she stood pinned to her mother’s flank, body wracked with tremors, fighting for all she was worth.

Horses are prey animals. They’re hard-wired to mask weakness; their lives depend on it. It’s entirely possible that the only question a horse ever asks is, “am I safe?”* Even at 11 weeks, the foal knew she should hide her weakness or be picked off by wolves. On quaking legs, Fifi — short for Fiammetta, Little Flame — repeatedly bunted into me and nearly knocked me over with the force of her will as I struggled to assess her condition. 

I have the vet’s mobile number on speed dial. Even though it was early, and Sunday, I rang, and the vet attended within the half hour. By afternoon, we had trailered the mare and foal to Massey’s equine hospital. Placed on a continuous IV drip of fluids, steroids and antibiotics, Fifi stood separated from her mother by a low wall that divided the stable in two. The mare could just reach over to sniff or nuzzle her, but the IV line which descended from the ceiling and shunted into the foal’s delicate neck, was protected. The fever and infection raged on and by nightfall, she was blind. The results came back the following day: Salmonella. The foal killer. 


Observation is the basis of the scientific method. It is also the basis of creative writing. Xenophon, in his critical thesis The Art of Horsemanship (362 BCE), relied on observation to render his compact and lucid view of the horse as a foal, in training and in war. Xenophon is surprisingly modern and relevant thanks to his keen eye and some elegant truths about the nature of horses which still endure. The art of horsemanship has been posited and lost, rekindled and lost again and again throughout the ages. 

Much has been written about horses. From overtly sentimental novels aimed at pre-teen horse mad girls to saucy bodice rippers set in the world of high-stakes show jumping, fiction is littered with books about horses—or more accurately, books about the people who ride them. There are dozens of memoirs about women, often of a certain age or vulnerability, who have been saved by a horse, and still others about people who have rescued horses only to be transformed by the arduous process of rehabilitation. Some of these books are marvellous: insightful, generous, lyrical. But they are all books about people. Horses are simply the vehicle for an intensely human story. 

I am interested in the horse: how we perceive horses, how we relate to them, how we talk about them and how we use them—and how we might let them stand on their own, without bias and prejudice, and simply be horses. 


I was alone on the farm that morning. I called in every favour, finding someone to help me load and drive the mare and foal to hospital, someone else to come and take the dogs for the day. Someone else, still, to attend to the rest of the horses. While waiting for the vet, I put a little halter on the foal and tried to walk her around—believing that if she collapsed, she might give up because this is what prey animals do—but she wouldn’t move away from her mother. I haltered the mare instead and walked her in slow arcs around the paddock with the foal pitching unsteadily behind. 

I’ve had horses for years. I’ve been present at births, and I’ve stood at the side of elders as euthanasia drugs were administered. I ride and train a little, and I make room for damaged horses to heal and old horses to retire. We live at the foothills of the Tararuas a mountain range at the bottom of New Zealand’s North Island. Our little farm is cradled by an ancient stand of Totara trees. Our paddocks are lush and fertile. The birdlife here is amazing, their chorus a nonstop playlist of bell and whistle and screech. 

The little foal lived. She was blinded for a month, her eyes clouded yellow and lustreless like the kind of opaque marble you’d never take in trade. Every couple of hours, two vet nurses unhooked the IV and guided her around the wall divider so that she could drink from her mother’s swollen teats. She was often too weak to latch on. The mare’s milk contained all the antibodies required to fight, but at 11 weeks, the foal had not yet received all that was needed to defend against Salmonella. 12 weeks is the rule of thumb. When Fifi emerged from hospital, some of her sight beginning to return, shel was scraped and bruised all over from stumbling into walls and doorways. Her muscles weak from dehydration and lack of exercise. The delicate skin on her hind end angry and red-raw from the caustic diarrhea that continued throughout her hospital stay, her joints swollen and misshapen from the drugs that saved her life. But the most gut-wrenching thing of all was this: blinded and caged, Fifi had learned to read the limits of her world with the tip of her muzzle. What was once a simple milk-seeking reflex was now her main way of navigating the world. 

To understand horses, you need first to understand anatomy and physiology. Xenophon knew this and devoted his first and final chapters to the points of the horse: body parts, proportions, angles, the set of the head and neck, the set of the tail, and so forth. Observational science. 

A horse’s whiskers, the vibrissae, are an extremely sensitive sensory organ. Like many mammals, horses rely on their whiskers to feel their way in the dark. Horses also use them to seek out food and water, to determine where things are in the space around them. It is not uncommon to see a young horse explore the world around her by stretching out and gently touching or rubbing her whiskers all over a newly discovered object. And brain science tells us that this curiosity causes dendrites to branch and the brain to grow.

You would think Fifi would have become frightened of people from all the poking and prodding with fingers and needles and the excessive handling in hospital. You would expect her to be flighty and standoffish. Wary and untrusting. But, no. Quite the opposite. She wants to climb into your pocket, to rub her muzzle all over you—to map with her whiskers your face, hair, neck, all the warm spots and even the sweaty ones—and huff in your very breath. Fifi no longer knows how to be just a horse. She has become a centaur; an impossible creature living between worlds.

Fifi and her mother Roxy a few weeks before the foal was infected with Salmonella.

* The question of horses asking “am I safe” was posed to me by Anna Blake, an affirmative horse trainer and brilliant coach and teacher. You can check out her blogs and training resources at:

Hell on Wheels

This world is like a mountain. Your echo depends on you. If you scream good things, the world will give it back. If you scream bad things, the world will give it back. Even if someone speaks badly about you, speak well about him. Change your heart to change the world. Shams of Tabriz

I came late to parenting, giving birth to my daughter a few weeks after I turned 40. Until then I hadn’t thought much about having children. I hadn’t spent time around families, didn’t hang around playgrounds or schoolyards and I avoided the library during the weekly story time. Too loud. Once I began observing the world as a parent I was often unsettled and occasionally shocked by how many parents called their children names – little shitbig babybratfatty and the ever-pervasive bad – I heard all of those. And I heard slightly more insidious descriptions, too: You are a very irritating childOh, he’s just a rambunctious boy. Epithets were applied when parents described their children to other adults, but also when talking directly to their children. And I wondered then about the lasting effects of those kinds of messages.

I was disconcerted when I caught myself describing my daughter to other people as “shy.” Well, she was: reserved, self-contained, tentative around other children and adults she didn’t know, but put her in a room of aunts and uncles, or close family friends and she would light up like a Christmas tree. She spoke in full sentences by the time she was 18 months old and had a remarkable vocabulary, often noted by adults. I tried to find better ways of describing my daughter’s behaviour so that people who interacted with her, pre-school teachers and babysitters, would understand and appreciate her. And not try to change her. I believed, in that fierce way that mothers do, that she had a right to her own path and I tried as best I could to clear the way so that she could walk it unencumbered by prejudice. 

Examining my own tendency to label my child highlighted the casual cruelty inherent in the way we speak to and about our children. I have always believed that language matters. Human language is not simply a tool or a means to an end, but the fundamental way we express our desires, our fears, our yearning, our love, our very humanness. Language is intimately bound up with our sense of self and our place in our family, our social or cultural group, our world.

We know that children as young as 18 months old are responsive to their parents’ expectations. It goes without saying that if the parent repeatedly labels the child as lazy, the child may well behave as they have come to see themselves: lazy, stupid, good for nothing. When the name calling is normalised, it undermines confidence, promotes discord and stifles our ability to be free from prejudice and self-doubt. 

And of course it’s not just our children. We call our animals names, too. I call my anxious dog The Philosopher, because he will take himself off “to think” when he’s having trouble self-regulating. While this is preferable to calling him a coward or a sissy or a scaredy-cat, The Philosopher is still a label and doesn’t help my dog to be more comfortable in his skin. We’re working on that.

My friend Barb told me she had to stop socializing with a few horse friends who would finish a long trail ride by remarking that their horse was a big dufus, silly, afraid of his own shadow, and so forth. It upset her that after the horses had carried their riders for hours and miles, these women would speak in such an off-handed and disrespectful way. I know how Barb feels. I interact with a number of horse owners who bring their horses to my arena for lessons and clinics. There are a few I try not to engage in conversation, because I know they will say something derogatory about their horse. And I simply can’t take it.  

I got provoked the other day by something someone posted in a large, popular horse group on Facebook. She called her horse a “wanker.” There were circumstances; she’d fallen off. She was mad, or frightened, or embarrassed – or possibly all of these – but she blamed the horse and made it public. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me and I pounded out a rant on the keyboard. It went something like this:

What reality do you want, what actual relationship would you like to have with your horse/dog/child/self? May I make a suggestion? Stop calling them names. Wanker and Big Baby aren’t nice things to call your child, are they? So don’t call your horse that name. Can you pull your head in and have a bit of respect for the animal whose life depends on you? And then — wait for it — can you extend that courtesy to your neighbours, your friends, your children, yourself? Radical, I know. But kindness counts. Start with your animals. They’re stuck behind your fences and have no choice but to take what’s given to them. Make it kind. I dare you.

Of course, I stayed my hand and didn’t hit “post”. I’m developing a pretty good rant-detector, and know that a public airing of my righteous indignation would be unskilful. Instead, I took it to a small, private group of like-minded horse women and asked for input. 

My friend Anna said to me, “what would it take to find the heart of the name caller?” 

As a group, we speculated that a lot of name callers do it because the creature (horse, dog, child) is perceived as a poor reflection on the person calling them names. It’s a shortfall of confidence on the part of the one doing the name calling. We often feel there is nothing we can do for name callers other than trying not to name call ourselves. Perhaps we could have empathy for them.

But it still upsets me, needles me under my skin. 

One friend wrote that she tries to accept the name calling and craft something else from the moment “which typically means withdrawing if I can and if there’s any chance of it, leading by example. If my dander is up and I feel that someone weaker is being oppressed I can be hell on wheels, but I’m looking for a better way of dealing somewhere between the two extremes.”

We all agreed that name calling is normalised. But that doesn’t make it right.

So what do we do?

In some cultures, hiding the good is ingrained as a way to protect goodness. Hiding or obscuring one’s talents is seen as a way of both protecting (hide your light under a bushel) and of being humble (not putting on airs). A woman who says her horse is a big dufus is possibly just being falsely modest, or she may be trying to deflect her own insecurities. Either way, over time, the horse begins to seem more and more like a big dufus and less and less like an intelligent sentient being. This is the tragedy, the thing that makes me cringe. My gut feeling is that if we could accept our horses (dogs/children/selves) as they are, we might be able to have a more authentic partnership. Or at the very least, a bit of a two-way conversation.  

Another friend wrote, “It’s true that silence equals consent, and our voices need to be heard. I don’t rally to forgiveness if it is not being asked for. Horses, and humans for that matter, need our actions as well as our words.”

Damn straight. So, when and how do our words and deeds become skilful?

I had drinks recently with a couple friends. They told me a hair-raising story of an outing with their horses. There was a lot of bashing around and horses with “eyes on stalks” and “jig-jogging, snorting, blowing.” There was a fair amount of name-calling too (big baby, pussy, etc), while what they described sounded like horses being over-faced and pushed to the brink of fear. This was, perhaps, a kind of braggadocio and I tried to shrug it off. When I did talk it was to defend the horses with simple logic — I tried to offer another way of looking at how their horses were responding to the situation. I talked about the autonomic nervous system and how a horse’s ability to process and learn is compromised when in flight or freeze mode. My friends went quiet for a few seconds and then burst back into the drama of their story. I felt earnest and out of place. Later, I felt frustrated and rattled. These kinds of stories don’t entertain or titillate me. They make me sad for the horses. And, if I’m honest, they make me a little angry towards the tellers of such tales.

Someone suggested that my rant could be “re-written, re-framed in a less confrontational manner, that kind words are easier to accept.” And while I agree in principle, looking back on my rant, the only thing I would omit is the last confrontational line, “I dare you.” 

I am trying to practice self-regulation, and I’m doing this with urgency. It’s become abundantly clear that in my own life with horses, I will never become more skilful and confident if I can’t control my emotions. This may be true for my ability to be an advocate for horses, too.

Later in the long thread of conversation, Anna said, “What would it take to heal the heart of the name-caller?”

What indeed? If we can find the heart in our enemy, can we muster the courage to heal it?

The last person to weigh in, did so with characteristic generosity and wisdom. Bex said that the people who name call are often in “a place of less knowledge about (and therefore less compassion for) their horses than we are,” and that they may be “lacking a safe person or “herd” of their own to vent to,” that the name calling often comes from a place of fear and needing an outlet for their uncomfortable feelings. She reminded me that the interpretation of words can differ between people, that there is a cultural aspect to the use of language that must be considered. All true, and the reminder helps to nurture a more compassionate response. 

Finally, Bex said, “none of these factors excuses violent or contemptuous language towards a horse, especially if those words create a perception of the horse that then affects the way humans view him and treat him going forward.” Which is exactly what I feel the casually cruel deployment of name calling does. “But they do give me some compassion for the human doing it,” Bex concludes.  

And this is why I stayed my hand the other night and didn’t post my rant. I know a lot about fear and horses, and I agree: nothing excuses violent or contemptuous language (or actual violence) towards any creature. A lot of misery is created for the lazy horse or the big baby. I believe that language matters. A lot. And in a multi-cultural world, it matters even more. I’m not suggesting some sort of PC cleansing of our vocabulary, but I would like to promote the idea that we could shake ourselves free of the shackles of name calling, labelling and prejudice. Because when we do, we free the animal (child/self) from those shackles and allow them to stand in their own skin with dignity. This has far-reaching implications for the world we live in. It’s not only transformative for horse owners but for everyone. 

This world is like a mountain. Your echo depends on you.

The Day Fly Thought he was Being Sold, Yet Again

A sharp breeze pierces everything. The leaves on the trees dance, jittery and possessed. She meets me at the gate where I stand knowing she is coming soon. I hear her steps on the hard ground before I see her and then she comes into view, the familiar scent soothing, but I feel the electricity: her heart is beating a little fast and I know things are different. She puts the headcollar on and suddenly we’re marching, quickly, away from the others. She hums a river of sound, and we pass the open mouth of the box. And now my heart beats faster, too.

She rubs me all over with the stiff tool and the river of sound becomes quiet. We breathe together and there is peace. There is also hay in a net and I eat. She says, “Good man. We’re going on an adventure.” When she swaddles my lower legs and plaits my tail, I stop eating. Memory like a bell. This is how the world changes. 

She asks me into the box, the wall closes, and I am alone. World rushing by. Colours and smell and noise and the work of keeping my balance. Thoughts of the others recede though I call out from time to time. I pluck at the hay and listen to the groans of the box, sniff the wind for anything familiar, anything dangerous. It comes and goes so quickly. Too much rocking for sleep. 

When the groaning and the rocking stops, there is more humming from outside the box. The wall comes down and she climbs in to free me. New smells: a stallion, mares. Memory’s bell rings lightly again. She says, “It’s Jane’s, we love it here.” And she puts my saddle on, then the bridle and walks me past the others with their heads to the grass and then she is swinging up onto my back. 

The one with the voice like tiny bells stands in the middle and calls out while the one on my back squeezes her legs on my body and turns my head with the hardness in my mouth that she gathers and tugs in her hands. We walk and trot and jump into canter. We canter and trot and walk over logs and poles. 

And then it’s over. She rubs me with the tool again and turns me out into a lonely place with little grass and water scummed over with green. I see her busy at the box. She brings me hay and fresh water, and a sweet orange carrot. The sun on my back, I eat and then I sleep, standing.

I’m startled when she is suddenly at my side again, putting the headcollar on. She gives me another rub with the tool and lifts my feet and scrapes them. Flings the saddle on my back, and leads me quickly to a new box, larger and darker. The one with the voice like tiny bells is ringing, ringing, and there are two others being walked into the mouth of the big box. Memory like a bell, tolling. I am leaving. Again. She hands me to the one with the voice like tiny bells, and together we run up into the box. I call out a trumpeting call as the wall closes. Memory like a bell, tolling fear. The two others in the dimly lit space are unfamiliar but they are unafraid, relaxed, already munching on the sweet hay. Our legs and bellies nearly touching, our heat rising together. The dark box growls and rumbles and we pitch from side to side.

When the wall comes down, she is still there. She makes the human sound of laughter and says, “Silly man, you thought I’d sold you. We’re just going on a farm ride.”

I am not young. My body is stiff and the work of carrying her is only made easy because she does things slowly and doesn’t ask for much. We follow the others up a flat track, around a hill, and the world opens out before us. She draws in a sharp breath. I feel it in my spine. I lift my head and we both gaze out over the land. She exhales and so do I. Lower my head and feel the breath of the wind brush us both clean.