The Outside of a Horse

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.

Decomposing Standards

I’ve banked nothing, or everything.
Every day

the chores need doing again.
Early in the morning,

I clean the horse barn with a manure fork.
Every morning,

it feels as though it could be
the day before or a year ago
or a year before that.

With every pass, I give the fork one final upward flick
to keep the manure from falling out,
and every day I remember

where I learned to do that and from whom.

Time all but stops.

But then I dump the cart on the compost pile.
I bring out the tractor and turn the pile,

once every three or four days.
The bucket bites and lifts, and steam comes billowing out of the heap.
It’s my assurance that time is really moving forward,
decomposing us all in the process.
~Verlyn Klinkenborg from More Scenes from the Rural Life

I’ve written about horse manure before in a variety of contexts as it is a daily chore here to keep it picked up, wheeled to the pile, wait for it to compost and then use it to fertilize garden or fields. It is one of the crops on our farm and we take our manure management seriously.

I have not written before about our dogs’ coprophagous grins (look it up). This is a family-friendly blog so I’m not using the colloquial term that might be used while we’re out in the barn. But grinning they are, with a muzzle full of manure.

Dogs love to eat horse poop (among other things). No one has figured out why except that decomposing things – fecal, rotting or decaying- just simply smell good to a dog and what smells good must taste good. It does not smell good on their breath or, when they happily roll in it, on their fur. But they don’t seem to mind stinking to high heaven as long as it is their choice. What consenting dogs do should not concern us, right?
Right – until the stink reaches the threshold of the house or man’s best friend wants to plant a slobbery kiss on your cheek.

There is a lesson here in the manure pile.
There must be a pony buried here somewhere.
And there is.

We human beings, proper as we may appear on the surface, like to roll around in the figurative decomposing stuff too. Especially individuals in the news this week and in the recent past who proclaim strict Christian values and are leaders in preaching standards of morality have found themselves up to their eyeballs in the stink of their own choices, surrounding themselves with it. Jobs have been lost and reputations ruined.

We almost lost a farm dog because he inadvertently overdosed on ivermectin horse wormer that may have been in ingested manure or dripped nearby. What may appear benign, no big deal and may not hurt anyone, could in fact be lethal.

So I tell the dogs to wipe that coprophagous grin off their faces and clean up their act. If I wanted to hang out with the stink of decomposition, I’d go picnic next to a nice steaming warm compost pile.

At least I know in the case of the compost pile, the manure eventually becomes something far more wholesome, thereby ultimately redeemed.

Fully Formed

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”

photo by Emily Vander Haak

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.

Fighting a Harder Battle

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.

 

Grazing and Feasting

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.


A Joy So Violent

She lay on her back in the timothy
and gazed past the doddering
auburn heads of sumac.

A cloud – huge, calm,
and dignified – covered the sun
but did not, could not, put it out.

The light surged back again.
Nothing could rouse her then

from that joy so violent
it was hard to distinguish from pain.

~Jane Kenyon, “The Poet at Ten” from The Best Poems of Jane Kenyon

I have a mare who journeyed as a foal
from overseas alongside her mother,
a difficult immigration to a new life and farm,
followed by the drama of weaning and separation,
then introduced to a new herd who didn’t speak her language
so she couldn’t always understand what was being said.

She was shy and fearful from the beginning,
knowing she didn’t belong,
worried about doing the wrong thing,
cringing when others laid back ears at her or bared their teeth,
she always hung back and let others go first,
waiting hungry and thirsty while others had their fill.

What she did best was be a mother herself,
devoting herself to the care of her foals,
as they became the light of her life
though still covered with the cloud of not belonging,
she grieved loudly at their weanling goodbyes.

Still, two decades later, in her retirement,
she is shy and submissive, still feeling foreign,
as if she never quite fit in,
always letting others go first,
concerned about making a misstep.

I think of her as an immigrant
who never felt at home
unless she had a baby at her side~
to live alongside one to whom she finally belonged:
how does one measure the pain of true joy and love
while knowing the violence of separation is inevitable?

thank you to Lea Gibson Lozano and Emily Vander Haak for their photos of Belinda and her babies

Hard to Reach

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.

Ancestral Wanderlust

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.

Pounding the Earth

Nothing approaches a field like me. Hard
gallop, hard chest – hooves and mane and flicking
tail. My love: I apprehend each flower,
each winged body, saturated in a light
that burnishes. I would make a burnishing 
of you, by which I mean a field in flower,
by which i mean, a breaching – my hands
making an arrow of themselves, rooting
the loosened dirt. I would make for you
the barest of sounds, wing against wing,
there, at the point of articulation. Love, 
I pound the earth for you. I pound the earth. 

~Donika Kelly (2017) “Love Poem: The Centaur” from Bestiary

When Haflingers gallop in the field, it sounds like thunder as their hooves pound the earth. It can be a particularly ominous sound, especially in the middle of the night when the pounding hooves are going past our bedroom window which means only one thing: their field gate or the barn door has been breached. Haflingers are also Houdinis.

Their hooves may hug the ground, treading clover blossoms and blades of grass but I can see invisible wings as I watch them run. Their manes and tails float free even when the rest of their bodies are entirely earth-bound.

I know most of the time I move ponderously over the earth as well leaving my footprints behind. Some days I feel literally tethered to the ground, with no lightness of being whatsoever.

But once I breach the gate, I grow wings. The ground cannot hold me any longer and it rises to meet me as I fly.

Reflecting Stars

Two whistles, one for each,
and familiar sounds draw close in darkness—
cadence of hoof on hardened bottomland,
twinned blowing of air through nostrils curious, flared.
They come deepened and muscular movements
conjured out of sleep: each small noise and scent
heavy with earth, simple beyond communion…

…and in the night, their mares’ eyes shine, reflecting stars,
the entire, outer light of the world here. 
~Jane Hirschfield from “After Work”

It’s tempting to fall headfirst into their fathomless well –
Their eyes are what rivet me as they search my own,
This retinal magnet drawing me into
Such incalculable depths.

Yet I’m merely reflected like starlight;
Only dancing on this mirrored surface
When I long to dive deep to understand what they see in me:
To be so lost I must be found.