And then, that evening Late in the summer the strange horses came.
In the first moment we had never a thought That they were creatures to be owned and used.
Since then they have pulled our plows and borne our loads, But that free servitude still can pierce our hearts. Our life is changed; their coming our beginning. ~Edwin Muir from “The Horses”
There is nothing that truly compels a horse to wear a saddle, pull a heavy burden, chew a cold bit until it foams warm — no fear of whip or spur or harsh word. They, so much more powerful than we are, choose the work, to do what is needed, to serve freely, to be there because they were asked — whether asked nicely or not.
How much more we learn from the lather of their sweaty grace — how to choose the labor that changes lives, how to offer up love in gratitude for the reward of a scratch in just the right place and a nose buried in sweet clover.
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it rained in my sleep and in the morning the fields were wet I dreamed of artillery of the thunder of horses in the morning the fields were strewn with twigs and leaves as if after a battle or a sudden journey I went to sleep in the summer I dreamed of rain in the morning the fields were wet and it was autumn ~Linda Pastan “September” from Carnival Evening
The dogs eat hoof slivers and lie under the porch. A strand of human hair hangs strangely from a fruit tree like a cry in the throat. The sky is clay for the child who is past being tired, who wanders in waist-deep grasses. Gnats rise in a vapor, in a long mounting whine around her forehead and ears.
The sun is an indistinct moon. Frail sticks of grass poke her ankles, and a wet froth of spiders touches her legs like wet fingers. The musk and smell of air are as hot as the savory terrible exhales from a tired horse.
At evening a breeze dries and crumbles the sky and the clouds float like undershirts and cotton dresses on a clothesline. Horses rock to their feet and race or graze. Parents open their shutters and call the lonely, happy child home. The child who hates silences talks and talks of cicadas and the manes of horses. ~Carol Frost – lines from “All Summer Long” from Love and Scorn: New and Collected Poems.
I was one of those lonely but happy youngsters who dreamt of horses all summer long, immersed in my own made-up stories of forest rides on hidden trails, of spending hours decorating long manes and tails of golden horses, of performing daring rescues and races, of battles and bravery I didn’t experience in real life. The imaginings took me beyond the mundane into the fanciful where I could be completely lost until I was called to come in for dinner or return to the confines of a school classroom.
Some dreams do come true when you want them badly enough: I’ve now had decades gazing out at fields of grass with those thundering hooves, back-dropped by endless skies of ever-changing clouds. I’ve also found that fairy tales can have broken fences and growing manure piles.
It has been worth it for a kid whose own story bloomed when I became a wife, a mother, a physician and a horse farmer. As this summer yet again has transitioned to autumn, so does my story: it is full of aging horses and tired fields, yet still I find myself dreaming like a kid as I comb out those long flowing manes.
Consider this book of beautiful words and photography, available to order here:
I wanted a horse. This was long after we sold the work horses, and I was feeling
restless on the farm. I got up early to help my father milk the cows, talking
a blue streak about TV cowboys he never had time to see and trying to
convince him that a horse wouldn’t cost so much and that I’d do all the work.
He listened while he leaned his head against the flank of a Holstein, pulling
the last line of warm milk into the stainless bucket. He kept listening
while the milk-machine pumped like an engine, and the black and silver cups fell off and
dangled down, clanging like bells when he stepped away, balancing the heavy milker
against the vacuum hose and the leather belt. I knew he didn’t want the trouble
of a horse, but I also knew there was nothing else I wanted the way I wanted a horse—
another way of saying I wanted to ride into the sunset and (maybe)
never come back—I think he knew that too. We’ll see, he said, we’ll see what we can do. ~Joyce Sutphen “What Every Girl Wants”
I once was a skinny freckled eleven year old girl who wanted nothing more than to have her own horse. Every inch of my bedroom wall had posters of horses, all my shelves were filled with horse books and horse figurines and my bed was piled with stuffed horses. I suffered an extremely serious case of horse fever.
I had learned to ride my big sister’s horse while my sister was off to college, but the little mare had pushed down a hot wire to get into a field of spring oats which resulted in a terrible case of colic and had to be put down. I was inconsolable until I set my mind to buy another horse. We had only a small shed, not a real barn, and no actual fences other than the electric hot wire. Though I was earning money as best I could picking berries and babysitting, I was a long way away from the $150 it would take to buy a trained horse back in 1965. I pestered my father about my dreams of another horse, and since he was the one to dig the hole for my sister’s horse to be buried, he was not enthusiastic. “We’ll see,” he said. “We will see what we can do.”
So I dreamed my horsey dreams, mostly about golden horses with long white manes, hoping one day those dreams might come true.
In fall 1965, the local radio station KGY’s Saturday morning horse news program announced their “Win a Horse” contest. I knew I had to try. The prize was a weanling bay colt, part Appaloosa, part Thoroughbred, and the contest was only open to youth ages 9 to 16 years old. All I had to do was write a 250 word or less essay on “Why I Should Have a Horse”. I worked and worked on my essay, crafting the right words and putting all my heart into it, hoping the judges would see me as a worthy potential owner. My parents took me to visit the five month old colt named “Prankster”, a fuzzy engaging little fellow who was getting plenty of attention from all the children coming to visit him, and that visit made me even more determined.
When I read these words now, I realize there is nothing quite like the passion of an eleven year old girl:
“Why I Should Have a Horse”
When God created the horse, He made one of the best creatures in the world. Horses are a part of me. I love them and want to win Prankster for the reasons which follow:
To begin with, I’m young enough to have the time to spend with the colt. My older sister had a horse when she was in high school and her school activities kept her too busy to really enjoy the horse. I’ll have time to give Prankster the love and training needed.
Another reason is that I’m shy. When I was younger I found it hard to talk to anybody except my family. When my sister got the horse I soon became a more friendly person. When her horse recently died (about when Prankster was born), I became very sad. If I could win that colt, I couldn’t begin to describe my happiness.
Also I believe I should have a horse because it would be a good experience to learn how to be patient and responsible while teaching Prankster the same thing.
When we went to see Prankster, I was invited into the stall to brush him. I was never so thrilled in my life! The way he stood there so majestically, it told me he would be a wonderful horse.
If I should win him, I would be the happiest girl alive. I would work hard to train him with love and understanding. If I could only get the wonderful smell and joy of horses back in our barn!
I mailed in my essay and waited.
Fifty five years ago on this day, November 27, 1965, my mother and I listened to the local horse program that was always featured on the radio at 8 AM on Saturday mornings. They said they had over 300 essays to choose from, and it was very difficult for them to decide who the colt should go to. I knew then I didn’t have a chance. They had several consolation prizes for 2nd through 4th place, so they read several clever poems and heartfelt essays, all written by teenagers. My heart was sinking by the minute.
The winning essay was next. The first sentence sounded very familiar to me, but it wasn’t until several sentences later that we realized they were reading my essay, not someone else’s. My mom was speechless, trying to absorb the hazards of her little girl owning a young untrained horse. I woke up my dad, who was sick in bed with an early season flu. He opened one eye, looked at me, and said, “I guess I better get a fence up today, right?” Somehow, fueled by the excitement of a daughter whose one wish had just come true, he pulled himself together and put up a wood corral that afternoon, despite feeling so miserable.
That little bay colt came home to live with me the next day. Over the next few months he and I did learn together, as I checked out horse training books from the library, and joined a 4H group with helpful leaders to guide me. I made plenty of mistakes along the way, learning from each one, including those that left behind scars I still bear. Prankster was a typical adolescent gelding who lived up to his name — full of mischief with a sense of humor and a penchant for finding trouble, but he was mine and that was all that mattered.
That and a dad who saw what he needed to do for his passionate kid. I’ll never forget.
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.
Slowly the west reaches for clothes of new colors which it passes to a row of ancient trees. You look, and soon these two worlds both leave you one part climbs toward heaven, one sinks to earth.
leaving you, not really belonging to either, not so hopelessly dark as that house that is silent, not so unswervingly given to the eternal as that thing that turns to a star each night and climbs–
leaving you (it is impossible to untangle the threads) your own life, timid and standing high and growing, so that, sometimes blocked in, sometimes reaching out, one moment your life is a stone in you, and the next, a star. ~Rainer Maria Rilke “Sunset” (Trans. by Robert Bly) from The Soul is Here for Its Own Joy
We, frail people that we are, live out our lives between heaven and earth, sometimes in an uneasy tug-of-war between the two. We feel not quite ready for heaven as our roots go deep here, yet the challenges of daily life on this soil can seem overwhelmingly difficult and we seek relief, begging for mercy.
As we struggle to stay healthy during a spreading pandemic, it is frightening to watch others suffer as death tolls rise. We pray for safety for ourselves and those we love, knowing we are living “in between” where we are now and where we soon will be.
Shall we remain stones on the ground, still and lifeless, or are we destined to become a star glistening in the firmament?
Or are we like a tree stretching between soil and sky trying to touch both and remain standing while buffeted by forces beyond our control?
Christ the Son, on earth and in heaven, maintains an eternal connection to above and below. In His hands and under His protection, we are safe no matter where we are and where He takes us.
We can be mere stones no more.
This year’s Barnstorming theme for the season of Lent:
God sees us as we are, loves us as we are, and accepts us as we are. But by His grace, He does not leave us where we are. ~Tim Keller
Open your hands, lift them.—William Stafford, “Today”
The parking space beside the store when you were late. The man who showed up just in time to hold the door when you were juggling five big packages. The spider plant that grew— though you forgot to water it. The new nest in the tree outside your window. Chime of distant church bells when you’re lonely. Rhyme of friendship. Apples. Sky a trove of blue. And who’s to say these miracles are less significant than burning bushes, loaves and fishes, steps on water. We are blessed by marvels wearing ordinary clothes— how easily we’re fooled by simple dress— Oranges. Water. Leaves. Bread. Crows. ~Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer, “But You Thought You Knew What a Sign Looked Like” from Naked for Tea
It was a dark and stormy night. Leaves were strewn everywhere this morning, but more cling tightly to branches, waiting for another night, another storm to come, knowing it will be sooner rather than later.
I feel a bit strewn myself, bits and pieces of me flung here and there, while the rest of me remains clinging, hanging on for dear life, wondering what comes next.
Can I weather the weather of life, tossed and drenched?
Truly, marvels and miracles abound wherever I look, sometimes dressed so plainly I miss them first time around. In fact, they are so glorious, I am blinded by them. To see these signs, to know their significance, I must simply open my hands, lift up my eyes, quiet my troubled heart and be content.
The south-west wind! how pleasant in the face It breathes! while, sauntering in a musing pace, I roam these new ploughed fields; or by the side Of this old wood, where happy birds abide, And the rich blackbird, through his golden bill, Utters wild music when the rest are still. Luscious the scent comes of the blossomed bean, As o’er the path in rich disorder lean Its stalks; when bees, in busy rows and toils, Load home luxuriantly their yellow spoils. The herd-cows toss the molehills in their play; And often stand the stranger’s steps at bay, Mid clover blossoms red and tawny white, Strong scented with the summer’s warm delight. ~John Clare “Beans in Blossom”
Walking, thinking and paying attention to one’s surroundings all at the same time requires a slower pace than the recommended 3x a week standard cardiovascular work-out.
So, even if it isn’t getting my heart rate up, I’m trying out sauntering. Ambling. Meandering. Strolling. Dilly-dallying. Lingering.
As my feet move more slowly, my brain stays busy, even as my muscles aren’t so much. Musing. Cogitating. Contemplating. Reflecting. Pondering. Ruminating. Appreciating.
What takes place is a perplexing paradox: I empty out while filling up:
letting go of worry, doubt, fear, anxiety, grief, self-absorption allowing room for praise, contentment, grace, gratitude, worship