There is nothing better for the inside of a man than the outside of a horse… ~Long time equestrian wisdom attributed to many famous riders
Nineteen years ago today in 2001, two days before the world changed forever, I helped organize a gathering of Haflinger horse owners from western Canada and the United States in our nearby town of Lynden, Washington. We received permission to have a Haflinger parade on a quiet Sunday morning while the townspeople were all in church. We wanted to be sure we would not interfere with traffic coming to town and leaving after worship services.
It was a remarkable morning of over ninety Haflingers – riding, driving, walking their horses, enjoying the quiet peace of a Sabbath morning in a friendly little town.
After September 11, 2001, nothing has felt quiet or calm in the same way ever again.
This is to remember the day we spent together, in the insides of us enjoying the outsides of our horses.
What I didn’t know before was how horses simply give birth to other horses. Not a baby by any means, not a creature of liminal spaces, but already a four-legged beast hellbent on walking, scrambling after the mother.
A horse gives way to another horse and then suddenly there are two horses, just like that.
That’s how I loved you. You, off the long train from Red Bank carrying a coffee as big as your arm, a bag with two computers swinging in it unwieldily at your side. I remember we broke into laughter when we saw each other.
What was between us wasn’t a fragile thing to be coddled, cooed over. It came out fully formed, ready to run. ~Ada Limón “What I Didn’t Know Before”
It felt fully formed and meant to be right from the beginning, now over forty years ago. We both recognized we were ready to run unafraid, trusting our legs were strong enough to take us wherever life would lead.
We don’t need to run as often now, but we are hellbent on walking through this world together as long and far as possible, laughing and loving as often as we can.
We didn’t know it could be like this. We just needed to wait for it to be born fully formed when the time was right.
Mostly, I want to be kind. And nobody, of course, is kind, or mean, for a simple reason. ~Mary Oliver from “Dogfish”
Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle. ~Plato
Our mare Belinda has a two decade history of fighting the hard battle of being consistently on the bottom of the mare hierarchy. She is unusually shy, very submissive and never one to stir up trouble in the herd. Most of the time she simply wants to disappear so the other mares can’t see her to bully her.
I’ve watched her over the years to learn how she copes day in and day out with her low status. She is clearly more clever than the higher-ranking mares who lord it over her, reminding her of their rank.
In the mornings when the mares are turned out to pasture from their individual stalls, I always open Belinda’s door first so she has the option to walk out to pasture ahead of the others if she chooses. Instead, she’ll stand waiting at the open door, watching the other mares leave their stalls and pass by, then follow behind them out to pasture keeping a safe distance between them and herself.
Once outside, she’ll stand at the water barrel just inside the pasture gate, and pretend to drink water for several minutes (I’m convinced she doesn’t actually drink a drop) while the other mares wander into the field to find their preferred grazing spot.
Once the others are clearly settled, she joins them at a safe distance. Then the worst bully will approach her, just as Belinda has started to eat, and will start to groom Belinda’s withers with her teeth. This is a clear invitation to be scratched back, so despite being hungry and clearly fearful, Belinda mutually chews/scratches for at least ten minutes with her mortal enemy. I’d like to think this is their brief truce in the battle for status every day; one clearly has a need and wants Belinda to comply. Belinda is more than willing to set aside her own needs if it means keeping peace in the herd.
At the end of the day, Belinda stays up in the field until the other mares have returned to the barn and are back in their stalls with the doors latched. I know she counts the number of doors she hears closing because she will refuse to come in from outside and return to her stall until she hears the last door closing, knowing it is then safe to some into the barn.
The first thing she does returning to her stall is to drop a pile of manure right inside her door. It is her claim of “mine” – no other horse here does that, since they would have to walk through manure to leave the stall, but for Belinda, it is a way of saying if for some reason the closed door isn’t enough to keep her secure, the pile of manure at least marks her territory.
She does not always have a peaceful night alone in her stall as I would expect. Her stall floor is churned and messy in the morning, as if she continues to be on the move even in the darkness, or perhaps she is a mare having nightmares.
I know her long life has been one of constant worry and vigilance despite always having access to plenty of food, a safe place to rest at night and always being part of a community, though not one that has supported her.
She reminds me that everyone, especially the lowest on the totem pole, deserves kindness because I cannot possibly understand the battles they are fighting, both day and night.
And they deserve respect: to simply survive, they are much smarter than I am.
Just past dawn, the sun stands with its heavy red head in a black stanchion of trees, waiting for someone to come with his bucket for the foamy white light, and then a long day in the pasture. I too spend my days grazing, feasting on every green moment till darkness calls, and with the others I walk away into the night, swinging the little tin bell of my name. ~Ted Kooser “A Birthday Poem”
This is not a usual summer, lacking boisterous gatherings of family and friends, missing our endless July outdoor meals~ instead staying in place, quietly feasting upon each gifted moment while close-crop grazing ’til I’m full up and spilling over, ready to someday again share all I have until empty.
Hard to reach, so you yank your clothes getting at it—the button at your neck, the knotted shoe. You snake your fingers in until your nails possess the patch of skin that’s eating you. And now you’re in the throes of ecstasy, eyes lolling in your skull, as if sensing the first time the joy one takes in being purely animal.
It’s so good to have a scratch, though isn’t it a drag living like this, jounced on a high wire of impulses, every wish the same programmed response to another signal passed from cell to cell, amounting in the end to a distraction— if truth be told—from rarer things, thoughts free from the anchor-chain of self? ~David Yezzi from “Itchy”
There is almost nothing more frustrating than having an itch you can’t reach. It is hard to think of anything else; you become entirely immersed in that sensation and the need to relieve it. It’s almost as difficult as stifling a yawn or trying to prevent a sneeze. It becomes literally painful: some things simply can’t be stopped.
So scratching an itch becomes the most important thing in the moment. And having done finally done it, you can move on to other things in your day and not think about it again.
So when the itch is hard to reach, it is surely a blessing to have a mama or close buddy who will scratch it for you. In fact, there is hardly anything as wonderful as someone who will be on the look out for your moments of distraction and discomfort and without even being asked, take care of it for you.
And to be really in sync, you’ll find their itch to scratch at the same time. I knew “scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours” must have come from somewhere — just out in my back field. Quid pro quo.
Because I have come to the fence at night, the horses arrive also from their ancient stable. They let me stroke their long faces, and I note in the light of the now-merging moon
how they, a Morgan and a Quarter, have been by shake-guttered raindrops spotted around their rumps and thus made Appaloosas, the ancestral horses of this place.
Maybe because it is night, they are nervous, or maybe because they too sense what they have become, they seem to be waiting for me to say something
to whatever ancient spirits might still abide here, that they might awaken from this strange dream, in which there are fences and stables and a man who doesn’t know a single word they understand. ~Robert Wrigley “After a Rainstorm”from Beautiful Country
Haflinger horses must have a migration center in their brain that tells them that it is time to move on to other territory, a move based on quality of forage, the seasons, or maybe simply a sudden urge for a change in scenery. I imagine, over hundreds of years of living in the rather sparse Alpen meadows, they needed to move on to another feeding area enmasse on a pretty regular basis, or if the weather was starting to get crummy. Or perhaps the next valley over had a better view, who knows? Trouble is, my Haflingers seem to have the desire to “move to other pastures” even if the grass in their own territory is plentiful and the view is great. And there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of natural or man-made barrier that will discourage them.
I have a trio of geldings (the “Three Musketeers”) who are particularly afflicted with wanderlust. There is not a field yet that has held them when they decide together that it is time to move on. We are a hotwire and white tape fenced farm–something that has worked fairly well over the years, as it is inexpensive, easily repaired and best of all, easily moved if we need to change the fencing arrangement in our pasture rotation between five different 2 acre pastures. Previous generations of Haflingers have tested the hotwire and learned not to bother it again. No problem. But not the Three Musketeers.
They know when the wire is grounding out somewhere, so the current is low. They know when the weather is so dry that the conduction is poor through the wire. They know when I’ve absent mindedly left the fencer unplugged because I’ve had someone visit and we wanted to climb unshocked through the fences to walk from field to field. These three actually have little conferences out in the field together about this–I’ve seen them huddled together, discussing their strategy, and fifteen minutes later, I’ll look out my kitchen window and they are in another field altogether and the wire and tape is strewn everywhere and there’s not a mark on any of them. Even more mysteriously, often I can’t really tell where they made their escape as they leave no trace–I think one holds up the top wire with his teeth and the others carefully step over the bottom wire. I’m convinced they do this just to make me crazy.
Last night, when I brought them in from a totally different field from where they had started in the morning, they all smirked at me as they marched to their stalls as if to say, “guess what you have waiting for you out there.” It was too dark to survey the damage last night but I got up extra early to check it out this morning before I turned them out again.
Sure enough, in the back corner of the field they had been put in yesterday morning, (which has plenty of grass), the tape had been stretched, but not broken, and the wires popped off their insulators and dragging on the ground and in a huge tangled mass. I enjoyed 45 minutes of Pacific Northwest cloudy morning putting it all back together. Then I put them out in the field they had escaped to last night, thinking, “okay, if you like this field so well, this is where you’ll stay”.
Tonight, they were back in the first field where they started out yesterday morning. Just to make me crazy. They are thoroughly enjoying this sport. I’m ready to buy a grand poobah mega-wattage fry-their-whiskers fence charger.
But then, I’d be spoiling their fun and their travels. As long as they stay off the road, out of our garden, and out of my kitchen, they can have the run of the place. I too remember being afflicted with wanderlust, long long ago, and wanting to see the big wide world, no matter what obstacles had to be overcome or shocks I had to endure to get there. And I got there after all that trouble and effort and realized that home was really where I wanted to be. Now, prying me away from my little corner of the world gets more difficult every year. I hope my Haflinger trio will eventually decide that staying home is the best thing after all.
It’s frail, this spring snow, it’s pot cheese packing down underfoot. It flies out of the trees at sunrise like a flock of migrant birds. It slips in clumps off the barn roof, wingless angels dropped by parachute. Inside, I hear the horses knocking aimlessly in their warm brown lockup, testing the four known sides of the box as the soul must, confined under the breastbone. Horses blowing their noses, coming awake, shaking the sawdust bedding out of their coats. They do not know what has fallen out of the sky, colder than apple bloom, since last night’s hay and oats. They do not know how satisfactory they look, set loose in the April sun, nor what handsprings are turned under my ribs with winter gone. ~Maxine Kumin “Late Snow” from Selected Poems: 1960 – 1990
This past weekend we had it all: sun, rain, windstorm, hail, and some local areas even reported a late April snowfall. It is indeed disorienting to have one foot still in winter and the other firmly on grass that needs mowing.
It is also disorienting to look at pandemic data and hear varying experts’ interpretations about what is happening, what they predict and what strategies are recommended.
It may be time to loosen the tight grip on social distancing yet many are reticent to emerge from their confinement, for good reason.
Just last week, we released the Haflingers from their winter lock-in back onto the fields – their winter-creaky barn-confined joints stretched as they joyfully ran the perimeter of the fields before settling their noses into fresh clover. Their ribs sprung with the fragrance of the apple blossom perfume of the orchard and it lifted my sagging spirit to see them gallop. But even the horses are not ready for complete freedom either – I whistled them in after two hours, not wanting them to eat themselves sick with too much spring grass. Their time on the outside will be tightly controlled until it is safe for them to be out unrestricted.
Surprisingly, the horses come in willingly to settle back into their stalls and their confinement routine.
I’m not so different. I long to be set loose in the April sun and the freedom to go when and where I wish. But the new reality means winter is not entirely gone yet and may not be for some time. There are still tragic and untimely losses of life, still plenty of weeping and lament from the grief-stricken who have been robbed prematurely of loved ones due to a virus that is circulating indiscriminately.
So we must ease out slowly, carefully and cautiously, with one ear cocked and ready to be whistled back in when we are called to return to safety.
We have a water bucket graveyard on our farm. Buckets, tubs, barrels, you name it – if it once had water in it, it is no longer functional and therefore is not only merely dead, it is really most sincerely dead.
Over the decades, we have bought various styles of buckets and tubs with which to water our Haflinger horses. None have survived more than a few weeks, all thanks to one Haflinger in particular who sees anything rubber, plastic or steel-coated as his personal ninja playground.
We discovered early on that Haflingers do have a variety of creative techniques for attracting attention to themselves when someone walks in the barn, especially around feeding time. Over the years, we’ve had the gamut: the noisy neigher, the mane tosser, the foot stomper, the stall door striker, the play with your lips in the water and splash everything, and most irritating of all, the teeth raked across the woven wire front of the stall. A few Haflingers do wait patiently for their turn for attention, without fussing or furor, sometimes nickering a low “huhuhuhuhuh” of greeting. That is truly blissful in comparison.
We raised one filly whose chosen method of bringing attention to herself was to bump her belly up against her rubber water buckets that hang in the stall, making them bounce wildly about, spraying water everywhere, drenching her, and her stall in the process. She loved it. It was sport for her to see if she could tip the buckets to the point of emptying them and then knock them off their hooks so she could boot them around the stall, destroying a few in the process. Nothing made this mare happier. When she had occasion to share a big stall space with one of her half-siblings, she found that the bucket bouncing technique was very effective at keeping her brothers away, as they had no desire to be drenched and they didn’t find noisy bucket bumping very attractive. So her hay pile was hers alone–very clever thinking.
This is not unlike a wild chimpanzee that I knew at Gombe in Tanzania, named “Mike” by Jane Goodall, who found an ingenious way of rising to alpha male status by incorporating empty oil drums in his “displays” of aggression, pounding on them and rolling them down hills to take advantage of their noise and completely intimidating effect on the other male chimpanzees. Mike was on the small side, and a bit old to be alpha male, but assumed the position in spite of his limitations through use of his oil drum displays. So my noisy and water splashing mare, became alpha over her peers.
Our current bucket destroyer is intent on making the kill rather than making noise for attention. During this gelding’s fifteen years of life, I estimate he has gone through over a hundred buckets. Ironically some buckets bite him back, causing such significant lower lip tears that on two occasions a vet made an emergency call to perform a laceration repair (also known as plastic surgery in the barn aisle) so this Haflinger bears scars for his bad bucket habit. Unfortunately, expensive lip repairs have not discouraged him from ongoing bucket battles. His latest victim was found this morning, its steel handle broken, the bucket itself half-buried in a hole my gelding had dug in the dirt floor of the stall. He isn’t even waiting for me to issue last rites anymore; he’s taking care of that himself.
We humans aren’t much different in our destructive tendencies and our need for attracting attention. Some of us talk too much, even if we have nothing much to say, some of us strut our physical beauty and toss our hair, some of us are pushy to the point of obnoxiousness. Some of us are real bluffers, making a whole lot more noise and fuss than is warranted, but enjoying the chaos that ensues. Sometimes we even tear down what is important to our own survival and nurture (everyone needs water, right?) and leave a wake of destruction behind us – all done to make sure someone notices.
Well, now I notice each time I buy a new bucket and am reminded:
I need to quit stomping and knocking doors in my impatience, as well as quit hollering when a quiet greeting is far more welcome and appropriate. I need to quit soaking everyone else with my splashing drama – after all, it yields me nothing more than empty broken buckets that sometimes bite me back. Eventually, when I destroy every bucket in the place, I will get very thirsty and wish I hadn’t been so foolish and brash.
So if my horses are potentially trainable to have better manners, so am I.
And then I realize: over the years, my horses have been busy training me.
More often than not, I’m still groggy every morning when I step out the front door onto the porch to make my way down the gravel driveway to fetch the newspaper. More often than not, it is still quite dark out at 5:15 AM. More often than not, my slippered foot lands on something a little crunchy and a little squishy and a lot icky on the welcome mat in front of my door.
The front porch cat (as opposed to the back porch cat, the garden shed cat, the hay barn cat, the horse barn cat and an average of 3 additional stray cats), predator that he is, leaves behind certain remnants of his prey’s….um, body parts. Mousey body parts or birdie body parts. I assume, from the consistency of this little carnivore compost pile, these are unappealing to the kitty, so become the “leavings”, so to speak, of the kill. Typically, it is a little mouse head, complete with little beady eyes, or a little bird head, complete with little beak, and something that looks suspiciously green and bulbous, like a gall bladder. I don’t think heads or gall bladders are on my preferred delicacy list either. And they are certainly not on my list of things I like to wear on the bottom of my slipper. Yet I do and I have.
I’m perplexed by this habit cats have of leaving behind the stuff they don’t want on the welcome mat, even the occasional whole shrew or field mouse, seemingly untouched by claw or incisor, but yet dead as a doornail on the doormat. Some cat owners naively think their cats are presenting them with “gifts” – kind of a sacrificial offering to the human god that feeds them. Nonsense. Ask the mouse or bird how they feel about becoming the blood sacrifice.
I believe the welcome mat is the universal trash heap for cats and a testimony to their utter disdain for humans. Leave for the human the unappetizing and truly grotesque…
So humanity is not alone of earth’s creatures to create garbage heaps of unwanted stuff. Not only cats, but barn owls are incredibly efficient at tossing back what they don’t want out of their furry meals. Our old hay barn is literally peppered with pellets, popular with high school biology classes and my grand-nephews for dissection instruction. These dried up brown fuzzy poop shaped objects are regurgitated by the owl after sitting in one of its two stomachs for a number of hours.
It’s fairly interesting stuff, which is why these pellets (which we recycle by donating by the dozens to local schools) are great teaching material. It is possible to practically reconstruct a mouse or bird skeleton from a pellet, or perhaps even both on a night when the hunting was good. There is fur and there are feathers. Whatever isn’t easily digestible doesn’t have much purpose to the owl, so up it comes again and becomes so much detritus on the floor and rafters of our barn. Ask the mouse or rabbit (or occasional kitten) how they feel about becoming owl litter. There should be a law.
Then there is the rather efficient Haflinger horse eating machine which leaves no calorie unabsorbed, which vacuums up anything remotely edible within reasonable reach, even if reasonable means contortions under a gate or fence with half of the body locked under the bottom rung, and the neck stretched 6 feet sideways to grab that one blade of grass still standing. The reason why Haflingers don’t eventually explode from their intake is that Haflinger poop rivals elephant poop pound for pound per day, so there must be a considerable amount ingested that is indigestible and passed on, so to speak – like part of a cloth tail wrap, and that halter that went missing… you know, like those black holes in outer space–that’s what a Haflinger represents on earth.
At least we have figured out how to recycle all that poop back to the fields to feed the next generation of grass, which feeds the next generation of Haflingers, which becomes poop to feed the next generation of grass, and so on and so on and so on…
This is quite different from the recycled “cud” of the typical herbivore cow who regurgitates big green gobs of grass/hay/silage to chew it again in a state of (udder) contentment and pleasure. If humans could figure out how to recycle a good meal for another good chew or two, the obesity rate would surely drop precipitously. So would attendance at most happy hours. But then, how many skinny cows have I seen? Probably as many as purple cows. I never hope to see one, but I’d rather see than be one.
In my daily walk through life, I have my share of things I unceremoniously dump that I don’t want, don’t need, can’t use, or abandon when I only want the palatable so figure the rest can rot.
Today is Earth Day, and I feel properly shamed and guilty for my contribution to landfills, despite my avid recycling efforts for the past 50 years. Nonetheless, I am in good company with my fellow carnivores and omnivores who daily leave behind and (sometimes) recycle what they don’t want or need.
I now need to figure out that herbivore cud thing. I can go green, just might save on the grocery bill and my bathroom scale would thank me.
And came the horses. There, still they stood, But now steaming, and glistening under the flow of light,
Their draped stone manes, their tilted hind-hooves Stirring under a thaw while all around them
The frost showed its fires. But still they made no sound. Not one snorted or stamped,
Their hung heads patient as the horizons, High over valleys, in the red leveling rays
In din of the crowded streets, going among the years, the faces, May I still meet my memory in so lonely a place
Between the streams and the red clouds, hearing curlews, Hearing the horizons endure. ~Ted Hughes from “The Horses”
Five years ago this week, Marlee went to her forever home, far sooner than we planned. She was only twenty two, born only two months after our daughter’s birth, much too young an age for a Haflinger to die.
But something dire was happening to her over the previous two weeks — not eating much, an expanding girth, then shortness of breath, and it was confirmed she had untreatable lymphoma.
Her bright eyes were shining to the end so it was very hard to ask the vet to turn the light off. But the time had clearly come.
Marlee M&B came to us as a six month old “runty orphan” baby by the lovely stallion Sterling Silver, but she was suddenly weaned at three days when her mama Melissa died of sepsis. She never really weaned from her bottle/bucket feeding humans Stefan and Andrea Bundshuh at M&B Farm in Canada. From them she learned people’s behavior, understood their nonverbal language, and discerned human subtleties that most horses never learn. This made her quite a challenge as a youngster as it also meant there was no natural reserve nor natural respect for people. She had no boundaries taught by a mother, so we were tasked with teaching her the proper social cues.
When turned out with the herd as a youngster, she was completely clueless–she’d approach the dominant alpha mare incorrectly, without proper submission, get herself bitten and kicked and was the bottom of the social heap for years, a lonesome little filly with few friends and very few social skills. She had never learned submission with people either, and had to have many remedial lessons on her training path. Once she was a mature working mare, her relationship with people markedly improved as there was structure to her work and predictability for her, and after having her own foals, she picked up cues and signals that helped her keep her foal safe, though she had always been one of our most relaxed “do whatever you need to do” mothers when we handled her foals as she simply never learned that she needed to be concerned.
Over the years, as the herd has changed, Marlee became the alpha mare, largely by default and seniority, so I don’t believe she really trusted her position as “real”. She tended to bully, and react too quickly out of her own insecurity about her inherited position. She was very skilled with her ears but she was also a master at the tail “whip” and the tensed upper lip–no teeth, just a slight wrinkling of the lip. The herd scattered when they saw her face change. The irony of it all is that when she was “on top” of the herd hierarchy, she was more lonely than when she was at the bottom and I think a whole lot less happy as she had few grooming partners any more.
She accompanied us to the fair for a week of display of our Haflingers year after year after year — she could be always counted on to greet the public and enjoy days of braiding and petting and kids sitting on her back.
The day she started formal under saddle training under Val Bash was when the light bulb went off in her head–this was a job she could do! This was constant communication and interaction with a human being, which she craved! This was what she was meant for! And she thrived under saddle, advancing quickly in her skills, almost too fast, as she wanted so much to please her trainer.
She was the first among North American Haflingers to not only become regional champion in her beginner novice division of eventing as a pregnant 5 year old, but also received USDF Horse of the Year awards in First and Second Level dressage that year as the highest scoring Haflinger.
With Jessica Heidemann she did a “bridleless” ride display in front of hundreds of people at the annual Haflinger event, and with Garyn Heidemann as instructor, she became an eventing pony for a young rider whose blonde hair matched Marlee’s. She galloped with abandon in the field on bareback rides with Emily Vander Haak and became our daughter Lea’s special riding horse over the last few years.
She had a career of mothering along with intermittent riding work, with 5 foals –Winterstraum, Marquisse, Myst, Wintermond (aka “Mondo”), and Nordstrom—each from different stallions, and each very different from one another.
This mare had such a remarkable work ethic, was “fine-tuned” so perfectly with a sensitivity to cues–that our daughter said: “Mom, it’s going to make me such a better rider because I know she pays attention to everything I do with my body–whether my heels are down, whether I’m sitting up straight or not.” Marlee was, to put it simply, trained to train her riders.
I miss her high pitched whinny from the barn whenever she heard the back door to the house open. I miss her pushy head butt on the stall door when it was time to close it up for the night. I miss that beautiful unforgettable face and those large deep brown eyes where the light was always on.
What a ride she had for twenty two years, that dear little orphan. What a ride she gave to many who trained her and who she trained over the years. Though I never climbed on her back, what joy she gave me all those years, as the surrogate mom who loved and fed her. May I meet her in my memories, whenever I feel lonesome for her, still unable to resist those bright eyes forever now closed in peace.