Canadian Maple

First leaf fall from the sapling

in the home paddock. Rough

and taste-tested by someone 

at some time during the season.

One edge jagged and true to the flag

of its ancestral home. The other dulled,

a flattened curve on a graph, indicating

success or the ravages of drought.

Such wilful slender to go out blazing,

imperfect. Our Antipodean home

more remote in the autumn of pandemic,

our tenuous hold more fragile than ever.

While Spring is beginning to yield to summer here in the Antipodes, I am thinking of friends in the Northern hemisphere with gratitude and love.

November 22, 1963

President Kennedy has been shot. I am in kindergarten, but they close school early and send us home. My mother is coming to meet me, and I see her a short distance ahead in the road. She is wearing a pale pink shirtdress. Her coat, hastily pulled around her shoulders, is unbuttoned even though the day is damp and raw. She is crying as she walks toward me. Tears roll down her cheeks making long grey tracks in her make-up. She wears no lipstick, or perhaps she has worn it all off by pressing her lips in grief. Suddenly the sky above us seems too large and pale, as if all color has bled away, as if we could fall up into it. As if gravity, too, might fail us. She cups her hand around my shoulder, and we walk unsteadily home.

—Excerpt from down they forgot, forthcoming from Lilith House Press in 2021.

Holding Space

This was written on Good Friday, 2020, during New Zealand’s full Level 4 lockdown.

Out in the paddock this morning there was a perfect storm of agitated Andalusian. Nishka is separated from the other horses because of an unresolved medical issue that causes her intermittent pain. We’ve had her back and forth to the Equine Hospital three times, and we’ve exhausted their arsenal of diagnostic testing. The thing that causes her sudden pain in her abdominal cavity, pain that causes her to kick out when touched and hang her head with a pinched and stricken look, remains a mystery. 

Today we had the farrier coming. Lockdown means we are obliged to take a lot of precautions – opening the gate when the farrier arrives, presenting the horses without standing too close, scrupulous hand washing. The hardest part is not being able to offer Winton a cup of tea or some baking. We like our farrier a lot, he’s talented and funny and we’re lucky to have him. 

At the beginning of Lockdown, the government didn’t consider farriers as essential service providers. If we had an urgent need for the farrier, we had to ask our vet to issue an authorised certificate. We have two horses with corrective shoes which can’t be left too long, and so we procured the special authority. Winton told us that once he was in the gate, he might as well see to all of our horses, so line them up we did. 

Dawn organised the horses and I took the dogs walking up the Gorge. We left early, just after 9 and, being Good Friday, there was even less traffic on the road than the new normal, which is not very much. I have been walking a little over a kilometre up the road and back most days, but today we pressed on further. Over the one lane bridge, over two rushing streams that feed into the river below. Past rich green fields with no animals in them, past the odd tidy post-and-rail gate with a well-kept lane snaking off into the hills to a house that is probably quite spectacular, while the houses near the road are mostly average and some are fairly ramshackle.

We came around a bend and I heard a horse calling out plaintively, with no answering call. The landscape on the South side of the road opened out into a massive paddock — probably 5or 6 acres — of lush grass. A lanky white horse was walking the fence in that anxious way that horses on their own will often do. No other horse in sight, in fact, no other animals at all. The horse was thin with ribs showing and poverty lines on his rump. In the midst of all that abundance. Stress will do that. It left me feeling sad, a hole in my heart for the big white horse up the Gorge. 

Dawn was still wrangling horses for the farrier when we got home, so I took the wheelbarrow and headed down to the empty paddocks to get the mucking done. I worked my way up to Nishka, who is currently grazing the back raceway. I was nearly finished with a very full barrow when all of a sudden Nishka noticed that several of her friends were missing. She started to pace and call out. The farrier and his apprentice came into the broodmare paddock to trim the foal and that was the last straw. Barney has become Nishka’s special friend and she seemed to feel that he was under threat with the stranger handling him. She leapt into a full-tilt gallop to the far end of the raceway, spinning on her hind legs and galloping back, hooves crashing into the ground and dirt flying. I pushed the barrow out of the way and ducked under the fence for safety. She was heaving and trumpeting, blowing air at the top of the race, spinning and barrelling away for another lap. 

I stepped up to the fence and cocked a hip. Gazed off into the middle distance with my eyes and shoulders soft. As she approached, I let out a long, audible exhalation. She stopped, frozen, eyes wide. I exhaled again. She blew out, ducked her head and took a quick drink. Then she went for another gallop. I repeated my exhalations every time she approached, and each lap became quieter. She was still very agitated, and yet she lingered near me a bit longer each time. I said, “yes” as I breathed out. And “good girl” before she took off again. Finally, she stopped and put her head down. Took a long drink from her water bucket and then she was still.

Did my posture and my breathing help her settle? I don’t know. But it felt good to hold space for her. It felt good just to be there when I can’t be there for my husband or my daughter or my friends who are locked down in Barcelona, or my brother who is holed up alone in the insane cesspool that is the United States.

The farrier finished up and Dawn brought some hay. She coaxed the mare and little Barney over to Nishka’s side of the paddock. Everyone put their heads down to the new sweet hay and all the world felt right again. 

Breathe until the feelings get bored and leave.

Nishka and Barney, grooming over the fence.


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.

The Uglier Side of My Nature

Our little farm sits aside a country road flanked by Totara trees. Huge and timeworn, their brittle branches dense with needle-like foliage arc over the road and form a tunnel half a kilometre long. Walking in the tree tunnel is both soothing and electrifying—dark and deeply shaded, softly dappled by fingers of light that penetrate the canopy here and there. Logging trucks, milk tankers and school buses all have to drive straight down the middle of the road to avoid scraping their vehicles or, heaven forbid, breaking a Totara branch. The tree tunnel is protected by a special heritage status.

One evening last week, an unfamiliar car backed into the driveway and parked diagonally, completely blocking the entrance and exit to our farm. I was already inside, sitting in one of the comfortable chairs, trying to muster the energy to get up and make myself a meal after a particularly gruelling day of physical work. 

Jen was still outside finishing the last of the evening chores — hanging the soaked hay nets for Daniel and putting on his rain sheet. The weather was changing, yet again. I could feel it in my bones, or more specifically, in the joints of my hands which were swollen and sore. I knew it would be raining by morning, and I sighed deeply anticipating another wet and muddy day with the horses. 

Jen came to the door, agitated. She said, “there’s someone parked weirdly in the driveway, totally blocking it. He’s been there for at least 20 minutes, and I’ve got to leave.” I grabbed the dogs and Jen and I went out to the gate. I called out, “can I help you?” A man leaned part way out the window. He said there was an oversized load being driven up the road, something about a house in three pieces and a convoy of trucks. 

“I wasn’t notified of this,” I said, a little sharply. “We have someone here who needs to leave.”

The man’s irritation was palpable. He told us, gruffly, that leaving wasn’t possible. 

“How long is this going to take?”

He shrugged, and opened the car door, swinging to face me. “Oh … it’ll be another 10 minutes, maybe. Could be a quarter of an hour, half an hour, maybe longer. Hard to say.”

Right then, I should’ve backed away and invited Jen inside for a drink while she waited for the road to clear. Instead, the ugly side of my nature flooded to the surface, along with the blood in my cheeks. I snapped, “that’s totally unacceptable. We should’ve been notified about this …”

He may not have said “now simmer down, missy,” but I felt sure he was thinking it. His old-fashioned, blokish non-specificity, his “she’ll be right” when it’s obvious that she really won’t be, got my hackles up. Ugly always leads with Us and Them. 

“You’ve been sitting here blocking my driveway for half a f—ing hour,” I snapped. “If you’d tooted your horn and told us what was happening when you first got here, my friend would have had ample time to leave.”

The man unfolded himself from his car and stood over me. He was tall, elderly and his face was stone hard. 

“Look here,” he growled.” I’ve lived here for 84 years.”

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard this refrain. Not long after we moved here with the horses, we tried to go out hacking along our road. Because the visibility in the tree tunnel is so poor, I walked on foot wearing a fluoro vest and moved to the middle of the road to slow the oncoming traffic in an effort to keep the horses safe. Most drivers obliged, and I smiled and waved as I stepped out of their way, calling out a thanks as they drove slowly and safely past. One driver came full speed at us, stopping only when I stood my ground. He wound down his window and said, “Look here, I’ve lived here for 37 years.” I knew the rest of the sentence was going to be something about his right to drive however he pleased, but that day ugly didn’t appear. I leaned down, flashed my biggest smile and said, “Wow, you’re a lucky man.”

Back at the gate the tall man loomed, pointing a bony finger at me. 

“I know who you are,” he said. “You’re from Wellington.” This was pure accusation, delivered with intense disgust. You need to know that Wellington is the nearest city, just an hour’s drive down the road. Technically, this rural area is in the Wellington district.

“No, I’m not,” I said, or lied, depending on how you look at it.

“Yes, you are. I know. You’re one of those people from Wellington. One of those film crew people.” 

Well, he certainly had done his homework. Technically, I do live in Wellington. My husband lives in Wellington and works in the film industry. But I don’t feel like I am from Wellington. No more than that I am from San Francisco, or Boston, or rural Vermont, or Illinois, or Ohio, or even New Hampshire, the state in which I was born. I countered:

“I am not from Wellington. For f—’s sake,” I shouted, dodging his jabbing finger. “Listen to me. Where does it sound like I’m from?” 

To this, he simply repeated the accusation: “No. You’re from Wellington. I know!”

It was then that ugly boiled over. I told him to get the f— out of my driveway. I pointed to his car and said, Go! And off he drove back up the road and out of the tree tunnel where he pulled into another driveway. 

Meanwhile, the convoy of trucks was now visible at the far end of the Totara tunnel, and though their progress was excruciatingly slow, the drivers were magnificent. They had side-walkers and pilot vehicles and they shimmied their big loads – a house cut into 3 pieces – up the tree tunnel without breaking a single branch. My fuming anger gave way to awe and relief as they passed our driveway. 

And then it was over.

But, of course, it wasn’t over. I’ve had an anger hangover ever since, and now I have a neighbour somewhere up the road who has ample reason to despise me. I suspect that the curse of being from Wellington has something to do with his frustration at the way the world is changing. The man who has worked this land for seven decades sees me as a wealthy urbanite carving up productive land for frivolous purposes. I understand this. But mostly I am ashamed of the uglier side of my nature. 

Sure, we should’ve received advance notice of the operation. It’s dangerous to block a populated road that has no other access. Our road winds up into the foothills of the Tararuas and ends in a recreational campground. There’s only one way in and one way out. Police should’ve been on the job. But as nothing bad came of it, my anger is just a tempest in a teapot.

I am the outsider here. I can’t expect locals to behave differently than they do. It’s up to me to fit myself in and try to be a useful member of the community. I like to think of myself as a decent person. And most of the time I am. I’ve opened my gates to the local community in a variety of ways and shared the bounty of my good fortune. I have cultivated relationships that I treasure with several neighbours. But I really screwed this one up, and I can’t shake the feeling that I did more damage than just swearing at an old man. At the very least, I solidified his opinion of people “from Wellington.” 

And that’s a shame because around here, we’re really all from Wellington.

Totara Reserve, Hautere

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:

How Dry That Summer

(after an untitled photo by Minor White, c1960)

How dry that summer, the earth

pulled taut around the farm

split into a million hollow veins.

Escaped heat burnt our feet

as we climbed down the arroyo

where the old milker heaved and buckled —

we found her without so much as a breath,

one eye open and staring.

Grey bowl of sky staring back.

We buried her meat no good for eating,

and the wild dogs dug her up. That eye,

gone back to the beginning of itself.

Night wind whipped into the dry cottonwood,

pulled nothing but dust up its roots until the leaves

crumbled from branches.

We followed the tracks of animals who moved

slow like us in the half-light of dusk

and like them, went hungry.

Our neighbours tractored out and nothing

between us and eternity but the withered stalk,

the endless plain.

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.

Abby has a Masters in Creative Writing from the International Institute of Modern Letters, Victoria University of Wellington (New Zealand). Her poetry, stories and essays have been published in literary magazines and anthologies both in print and on-line. She divides her time between a small horse farm and a home in town with her husband, a filmmaker. She shares the farm with her daughter, a classics scholar and fellow horse woman. Life without animals is unthinkable to Abby. 

Abby and Chico