Learning To Speak Horse
Article ID: 14677
Age Group: Adult
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Posted: September 4th. 2011
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It was a beautiful late summer morning. The kind of perfect day with sweet air and deep blue skies. I was outside with my Arabian horse Hamdan early after leading him out of his stall. Over the next hour and half we stood together quietly, me feeding him the rest of a bag of fresh carrots. After the carrots were gone, we just stood near each other in the way that horses do with herd mates. The proximity of each other was all the comfort that each needed.
Horses think that way you know. Happiness is a long time companion with horses, especially one they like. Horses rarely fuss or slobber over their friends. They like to stand near them, and maybe show their genuine affection with a gentle brush of the muzzle and breath of hay sweet air. The vet arrived just before 9:00 and began her prep. When she was ready I walked my limping friend to a spot in the field and very reluctantly handed him over to her assistant. Still standing nearby I watched as a catheter was set up and the IV started. It was over in a few seconds. His knees buckled and he was down, dead within the minute. As I stood with stony face and watery bright eyes, an animal that I’d lived with closely for over twenty years breathed his last. The vet kept telling me that I’d done the right thing. That I was saving him a slow painful decline from an incurable injury, but my mouth was filled with ashes, and all I could do was nod mutely before going inside to grieve for the loss of an animal that had profoundly changed my life so many years ago.
Flash back over twenty years to 1987. My girlfriend had found a young Arabian colt at a breeder. He was just shy of two years old, still a stallion and not even halter broken. However his bloodlines were very good, and he was closely related to her older Arabian. Her older horse was very gentle and his easy manners had impressed me. Even though I barely knew how to ride, never mind knowing much about caring for a horse, I wanted to buy him for her. The young horse was a mottled brown with only hints of white hair to show that someday he’d be a lovely flea bitten gray color. Shy and wily in his manners, my first lesson was to teach him to halter. It took nearly two hours and five-pound bag of carrots; though once he’d learned to give his head over to be haltered he didn’t ever give trouble doing it ever again.
I had to keep him at the breeders for the first few months. I quickly began learning that there is no such thing as a cheap horse. I made payments for board. Then we moved him to my girlfriend’s home to live in his own little paddock. He had to live in a small paddock; he was only a young colt, but still a stallion and could not be pastured with a mare. I was in the process of moving out of my own parent’s home, and was starting my own life on my own. For a few months lived on Chincoteague Island while I worked at a new job, and shopped for a home suitable to keep horses at.
During the time living there I spent much time on the nearby Assateague National Seashore following the wild pony bands that live there. I had been reading about wild horses and horse behavior and wanted to learn firsthand. As long as I didn’t approach too close, the horses would ignore me. Observing them I began to learn a very different language. The wild horse bands were not what I’d been told to expect with horses. The pony stallions were not the sex crazed, aggressive animals I’d been told they were. The wild pony stallions were very relaxed with their mares and babies. In fact on a number of occasions I’d come upon different bands mixed together, one time even watching two stallions mutually grooming each other while their respective herds were all mixed together and many slept on the ground on a warm October afternoon. It was a revelation.
Meanwhile my relationship with my girlfriend was falling apart. She’d convinced me to buy the Arab to be her new project horse, to be jointly owned. She’d train and show him and once I knew enough I would be gradually allowed to ride him. Well, it didn’t work out that way. Once I’d bought a place well off the beaten path I found myself on my own. My former girlfriend was cordial about it, but she wasn’t going to be joining me in my new home. One day shortly after I’d settled on my house and put up a fence and small shelter, she brought two horses down. I was now well “grounded”, on my own with two horses on my remote farmstead. One was a barely saddle broke 3 year old Arabian stallion and the other an almost equally “green” mustang. I had no idea what I was doing and nearly completely ignorant of that fact.
That first winter I was bitter in my isolation. These were the days before the Internet and social networking. I had a job that paid pretty well, but no friends, as I was new to the area. At home each night I had to care for two horses. Having that responsibility was all that kept me going from day to day for some weeks. Caring for horses is a very time consuming daily chore plus having to buy grain, hay and all the supplies.
I began to see that the Arab would watch me a lot.
One cold wintry night I turned around while watching TV and realized that a horse was just a few feet behind me on the other side of my window looking in. It was Hamdan. Over the next few months I worked with him just about every day. I rode this green horse just about five days a week. Some days we’d go out the dirt road into the marshes and I’d let him run flat out. It was both scary and exhilarating to ride with the wind roaring in my ears. Unlike many horses, he was happy to go out alone. We had a few fights. I learned what a roar of rage from an angry horse was like. He also figured out when I got up in the morning. I’d stagger downstairs in the morning to brew a pot of coffee and he’d position himself directly in line with the back door to wicker impatiently for his own breakfast. Every day became a routine of starting the coffee and then feeding the horses before doing everything else.
It was sometime in the spring that I finally realized what Hamdan had been telling me for months. I was mowing the pasture with a little hand pushed mower. I couldn’t afford a real tractor, so I pushed and shoved a little mower around to knock down the worst of the brush to grow some real grass. Hamdan walked over to me while I was struggling to push the mower back and forth. The mower was very loud and I concentrated on my work. After about 10 minutes I stopped to catch my breath and realized that my horse had lain down to sleep about twenty feet behind where I was working. My horse was telling me that I was trusted enough to act as a sleeping buddy. You see with horses, one will always stand guard while another sleeps. As a herd animal, horses are prey. Even after seven millennium of domestication the hard wiring is still there to act this way. I was accepted as his trusted buddy. I was learning.
Having a horse taught me to care for someone other than myself, to consider needs of someone who could not talk in the same way I talked. The horses and my land brought out the deep rooted, but mostly till then dormant, earth element in my psyche. I’d been brought up in a world of book learning. Now I had to learn to read a very different kind of language. I had to learn to watch for subtle shifts in posture and learn to use nonverbal language around horses.
Horses are notoriously shy about being approached directly. Some never do learn to deal with the human way of approaching. We do so in the manner of predators: we walk directly up while making fixed eye contact. To an herbivore, this is a predators way of saying “you are my food”. I learned to approach more softly. I’d look around and saunter up to the horses. A friendly pat and scratch before putting on a halter went a long way towards making them come to me instead of walking away when I wanted to catch a horse.
I learned I couldn’t hold a grudge when working with horses. It is not in the social vocabulary of the horse. I had to learn to be patient and open my mind to look at things from their point of view. They can’t think like us, so I had to do it instead. Horses do frequently misbehave, but you have to learn to deal with it like a horse does. With horses, an alpha would correct misbehavior with a swift response that will just as quickly stop once the offending behavior had ended. You also can’t get mad when you got dumped for something you did, or those times because the horse got scared and jumped at something that spooked him. I’d just reassure the horse it was okay, sometimes through gritted teeth in pain, and get on to ride a bit more (before limping off to aspirin and bed) .
By the time I got involved in Wicca, I’d had Hamdan for nearly five years. By then I was in college again working on another postgraduate degree and had met a girl who introduced me to her coven. When the talk turned to familiars there never was any choice to make. My familiar was my horse. He was a bit big to jump on my bed and snuggle and lived in a stall instead of in my house. However I could connect and ground with him in a remarkable way. If I needed to steady myself, I’d picture the earth running though me on his back, then down to his feet into the earth. Grounding myself was very easy as a result and my teachers were impressed with how well I could do so. “Thank the horse”, I said. In time, I even learned a way to shield with my horse. I’d imagine myself in his field with him. I simply seemed to disappear into his space according to the teacher who tested my shields. Together we were a very strong team. He still dumped me frequently, but that’s a horse for you.
In riding, I learned to stay alert, to think like a horse. Okay, I rode an Arabian horse. This is a breed well known for spooks and sudden starts. By thinking like a horse though, I could avoid many sudden surprises. My horse appreciated it, too. I was ready when something came up and he quickly came to understand that it was okay: his rider knew what it was that bothered him. It wasn’t a big deal, and he got over it quickly.
We did a lot of unusual things together like film work, parades and medieval reenactment. Like me, my horse did not like stressful competitive situations. However learning to speak horse built a strong bond between us. Several girlfriends were rather amused and jealous about this too. One lady I met made a snippy comment upon seeing me working Hamdan the first time I met her. A year later we were married. We joked for years that she’d go before the horse if I had to choose. Since she felt the same way about her own horse, we felt it was only fair.
Some years back, I shipped Hamdan to an old lady whom I still consider a true horse whisperer. She wasn’t a pretentious big name trainer. She was an old Oklahoma lady who’d lived and breathed horses for nearly 65 years by the time I met her. He stayed at her farm a month. We had lessons nearly every day. It was the closest we ever got as a result.
Hamdan never suffered poor riding or confused directions well. While he loved people and could be comfortable in crowds and parades and really surprising situations, he was very much a creature of routine and consistent habit. This was something I didn’t (still don’t) do well. This guy who came to her for lessons amused that old lady. Here was a guy approaching middle age who was riding with all her teenage, horse crazy students. Watching me prepare to mount up one day she said something that both flattered me, but haunted me too. She said we had a rare relationship, and it would be very hard when he died. She was so right on both counts.
I retired Hamdan from most riding after he passed twenty. Something had been bothering his back, and by now I had other horses to ride. On our last ride together it was obvious that his back was hurting. I had the vet out several times to check him, but we never pinned down a specific thing other than a touch of arthritis. I’d gained a bit of weight too as the years went on. I reasoned it was time to let him have his ease. Still he would get jealous whenever I took another horse for a ride and he had to stay home.
My new horses are Haflingers, both stouter and more laid back by disposition. One is a stallion. He is well trained with superb bloodlines, a sweetheart but very cool and can seem distant towards people unless you really get to know him. My other horse is such a character. Too smart by far and insatiably curious, but a real klutz. He fawns over me, but as a typical horse tends to want to test the limits whenever he wants something (which is all the time) .
Horses are true creatures of earth. To own them is to be tied to the earth. They are strong creatures and frequently depicted as an elemental force in their own right. Epona is the Celtic earth Goddess of horses. She is nurturing and fiercely protective, as well as very potently sexual all at the same time. Poseidon’s poly nature has him God of the sea, horses and earthquakes. Horses are complicated creatures, and even our horse Gods reflects the many faceted aspects of their lives. [For those who would like to explore more about horse spirituality and the human psyche, I recommend the following book: The Tao of Horses., Elizabeth Kaye McCall., Adams Media, c. 2004 ISBN 1-59337-099-7]
My horses have shaped my adult life. Over more than two decades they have been the center of my personal life. My wife and I were even married in a Wiccan ceremony with our horses bringing us to and from the event. Their lives and mine have intertwined in such intimate ways. Unlike many of our pet animals, horses form a close working partnership with their riders. You and your horse are in physical contact when you are working them. Horses accept their partners as leaders; it is a natural part of their social wiring to have an alpha in the herd. Domestication merely allows a human to take the role. They do love our monkey fingers since they are such sensual, itchy creatures. In return we get their strength and mobility. Together you are breaking down the barriers imposed by our different species. Humans think and act like predators, while they are herbivores. Yet we can live together in a partnership that for many millenniums has endured. My life has been so much richer for having been a part of this partnership. In many ways I learned more from my horse than all of my formal education.
Thank you Hamdan. You taught me well.
Copyright: Original work by author. Copyright 2011, A. I. Mychalus
Location: New Park, Pennsylvania
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