I was a horse-crazy kid, and still am. At the time, which was more than sixty years ago, this was a common appellation for children who just couldn’t get enough of them. I discovered that this wasn’t unique to me when my dad took me for a pony ride at an equestrian’s teaching/training stable when I was three. I met Jimmy, who was as couple of years older. We instantly recognized each other. At least for those years, we had found a home that worked for us.
We shared a profound bond: an unremitting calling to be among horses. As we grew, neither of us cared much whether we were mucking out, cleaning water troughs, stacking or feeding hay, turning out horses or bringing them in, grooming, hot walking or training. We just wanted to share the air they were breathing. To our olfactory systems, their fragrance was perfume. Their greeting nickers were auditory love letters and leaning into their shoulders, a full-body hug. Horses were home. We were magnetized to their magnificence.
I’ve met others who were powerfully called to horses. Those that I think of as horse-crazy have an energetic pipeline to the equine world. They populate our conscious thoughts and dreams. Their images fill our mind screens when the class or workroom clocks seem to be going backwards. This seems to happen whether we have access to horses or not. Have you known young girls who shun dolls for horse figurines, photos, books and movies? Have you known adults who adorn their desks, cars or homes with horsey décor?
Most horse-crazy humans are women or girls. We are represented in every ethnicity and class. So far as I can tell, this connection never goes away, though it’s not always actualized in ordinary reality.
A non-ordinary reality connection is just as valid. We just have a harder time giving it credence. This is one of the lessons horses teach us, when we’re astute enough to listen. To those horse-crazy humans unable to fit their lives onto an ordinary reality horse trail, don’t despair. Horses are great at energetic connections with those called to their teachings. You may just need a bit of human support to get your linkage working.
What’s it’s source? My guess is that this powerful bond is connected to the fact that we shared stem-parents with horses fifty-six-million-years ago. Neuroscientists recently discovered that we humans, and probably other critters, pass information, including familial memories, through our gene codes. Could some of us be tapped into those way-back genetically-encoded memes of our interdependency? That’s my working hypothesis, though I’m not sure that the cause is as important as the calling.
The drive to actualize this bond is immense. It often manifests like a compulsion in young girls and women. Pre-menopausal hormonal changes appear to trigger its manifestation in some. Maybe there’s an hormonal link. Men sometimes carry the calling too. I’ve known fewer, but have a couple of notables among my lifetime acquaintances.
These people have to express their bond. As a child, I noticed that other children who were sent to the stable for riding lessons came mostly at the behest of their parents, who wanted them to develop confidence, leadership skills, a sense of responsibility or social bonds among the children of high-status families. Those kids enjoyed themselves and liked the animals, but they weren’t consumed by a need to be there. When school or social activities interfered with their days at the farm, they didn’t come. Once beset by the hormonal changes of adolescence, they disappeared. The horse-crazy kids always came because nothing compared to their need to be there. We were there for nothing less than to meet our destinies.
What’s a Parent of a Horse-Crazy Child to Do?
There are a lot of choices available to parents of horse-crazy kids. They each have consequences. Some are great and others aren’t. Your choice in coaches-trainers and settings may well wind up being determining factors in your child’s development. There are a lot of operant variables to juggle.
Your child will need your help to steer her toward opportunities that will offer maximum positive growth and minimal trauma. I have strong opinions about what that looks and feels like for both the humans and horses. These have developed over the course of 62 years of horse handling and 37 years of psychotherapy practice. In reality, almost any face-to-face horse contact is wondrous for horse crazy humans. I’m taking the long view here: what works best for the psychoneuroimmunological health and safety of the humans, horses and our collective life-support system?
I advise parents to look into their own hearts and ask their child to do likewise. Why does your kid want to be with horses? Ask! She may have limits to her ability to articulate her calling. Help her figure it out. Get some age-appropriate picture books that show different types of horses engaged in a variety of action. Be sure that there are plenty of photos of horses grazing together in a variety of settings without people doing things to them. Watch her as she flips through the books. What lights her up? Where does she linger?
Then ask yourselves what you hope your child will gain by following this calling. If your youngster is old enough, include her in this conversation. Encourage her to get more information on the types of horses and activities that intrigue her.
Today, there are hundreds of equestrienne disciplines. Most are about training horses in performance specialties. When I was a kid, I wound up among hunter-jumper trainers, migrated into eventing, and then in later life discovered equine facilitated education and psychotherapy. Now, the calling moves me toward engaging equines as consciousness raisers and body-mind-spirit balancers. My trajectory through horse realms reflects, in part, the evolution of the horse-human bond.
The connection between humans and horses is enjoying an evolutionary growth spurt. Many horse people are beginning to question the dominance assumptions they bring to these relationships. This turns out to be a fruitful area of inquiry for our well being as individuals, families and cultures. Expanding the energetic pipeline between horses and humans has the potential of healing what ails us and our cultures.
When its well executed, the bond between horses and humans can go a long way toward relieving the stress of modern life for both. It gives us necessary tools to balance cultural influences that skew us toward living exclusively in our heads. The drive to be among horses brings us face-to-face with our interdependencies with other members of our life-support system.
Life around horses is real. Learning by doing has several advantages over purely intellectual learning. The former gets a free short cut to a secure position in longterm storage regions of our brains. The latter lingers temorarily in short-term storage, then is pruned from our neuronal nets, unless it’s applied redundantly to real-life situations.
Horses show us how to be mindful. To be safe in the presence of horses, mindfulness is essential. Cooperation is how horses survive. Being among them in a mindfully cooperative frame-of-mind on a regular basis is our original default setting. It feels like home should.
Archeological and anthropological evidence indicates that we humans first revered horses from a distance. Later, we used them for food and transportation. Eventually, they became workhorses on farms and ranches. Out of those roles arose specialty performance training. Competition within specialties is big business now. Even so, more and more humans are engaging horses as companion animals. As psychotherapeutic collaborators, they can’t be beat. A few forward-thinking horsemen and women are beginning to look to horses for spiritual guidance. In the States, law prohibits using horses for food now. All the other roles are still operant. You and your child have choices.
I recommend leaving the performance specialty horses and trainers in your rear-view mirrors. Training horses in specialty performance disciplines necessitates removing them from much of what makes them horses. They’re highly social browsers and grazers. They’re designed to move incessantly over lots of varied terrain in small bands. The movement gives them access to a variety of vegetation to feed on and presents a steady supply of problems for the band to collectively solve, which increases their social bonding.
When horses are trained as specialty athletes, they’re taken out of their natural settings. Often, they’re confined to stalls and/or small paddocks where they’re lucky if they can turn and lay down. Their only stimulation becomes their training protocols. These conditions under stimulate their neuronal nets and leave them prone to digestive, skeletal, neurological, emotional and kidney issues. The food, exercise and social conditions these horses endure are more like plush Black Site Prisons than educational facilities. The care of hot-house horses is expensive, time and labor intensive and often heartbreaking, because these horses’ lives are cut short. They’re often lame or sick.
The horsemanship training available at specialty performance stables is, in my opinion, as much of a disservice to horse-crazy kids and adults as it is for the horses. This training is always based on a
n assumption of Dominion: we humans have a God-given right to remove other members of our life-support system from their territories and families in order to force them to do what we want, no matter how damaging it may be. This behavior is as damaging to the perpetrators as it is to the victims.
We humans are beginning to get the errors of our ways. The horse world is one of the areas this mistake is being confronted. Save yourself and your kids the heartaches and dangers that inevitably attach themselves to human behavior that’s driven by our Dominion Delusion. There are more alternatives to it arising by the day.
What Does It Take?
Fasten your seatbelts; horses are expensive. Unless you have a bunch of horse-friendly-fenced land with excellent and varied forage, a steady supply of clean water and other horses, providing for your horse is going to a big-ticket item every month. Your horses’ needs won’t take a rest when your finances are tight. In fact, when you’re tense over finances, your horse(s)’ health may well take a downturn that will require a vet’s intervention. Horses are that dialed into our emotions. This can be as costly as human health care.
Even if you have an ideal setting for horses already established, they’ll need regular farrier and veterinary services, supplemental feed and therapeutic herbs. If your a beginner, you and your horses will also need you to get plenty of help to figure out each other. Even if you aren’t a beginner, there will always be more to learn.
My best advice is to go slowly as you’re entering the world of horses. There’s a lot to know. Do some research and get your kid(s) involved in this part. It’s okay to allow the anticipation to build.
Holistic versus Dominance
As I see it, your first decision is the most important one: Do you want your child’s horse time to reinforce her dominance skills, or would you prefer that it shape the development of her mindfulness, virtue and wisdom? Hands down, I’d pick the latter. The former has utility, is by far the most commonly available and may even be cheaper, initially. Beware: it has huge potential of becoming expensive fast. The dominance approach is far more dangerous for both horses and humans.
Dominance oriented stables have one or more trainers. They usually focus on a specific specialty, like show jumping, roping, cutting, dressage… The teaching time is devoted to giving students opportunities to master basic riding skills. Then, training focuses on developing skills specific to the trainer’s specialty. Usually, the trainer shows.
Beginning students are given a taste of competition, often by showing one of the trainer’s horses. Then the sales pitches begin. They want you to buy horses that will become or already are super-successful in the show ring. This brings your trainers hefty commissions, boarding, training, transportation and management fees, while it raises their professional status. The faster horses move through their hands, the better, for them.
I was in that kind of situation as a teen and became this sort of trainer, temporarily. I stopped. During my years in the competitive horse world, I noticed that the horses and humans became nuttier the more successful they became. Horses that cost more than airplanes were wound up in knots and so were their perfectly-coifed riders. Winning became the goal. The love that initiated the connection inevitably frayed. A lot of time and money seemed to be washing down the drain and no one but a few trainers benefitted.
I suggest starting with horsemanship lessons at a holistic equine facility. Good horsemanship teachers don’t just chuck kids onto the backs of horses and teach them how to make them stop and go. That’s not horsemanship. It’s more like domination indoctrination. It’s what a lot of programs offer and many parents expect.
In my opinion, this is a huge disservice to both horses and horse-crazy people, in that it takes a sacred calling and contorts it into a reinforcement of our delusion that we humans hold dominion. When we go there, it’s far more difficult to uncover horses’ most valuable lesson for us: a somatic understanding of our interdependency with all the beings of our worlds.
From my perspective, ideally, you will find a teaching facility where children and adults are shown how to share life with horses from a holistic perspective. You and/or your kids will learn from the bottom up, literally. You’ll start with a pitchfork or shovel and a wheelbarrow. This isn’t a theoretical education; it’s a hands-on deal. The good news about hands-on learning is that it sets. I encourage those who are looking for an equine education to open their minds to how much of life this training can bring into focus.
Horse poop and pee abound and, when they’re properly handled, nourish the land on which your horses forage. You’ll be mucking out pastures, stalls, arenas, grooming stations… Wherever horses go, their manure drops. Letting it linger draws flies. Fly bites are irritating and cause disease. It needs to be picked up and composted quickly. When it is, the manure pile becomes a life-generating biome that creates heat, mellows into perfect winter insulation and eventually morphs into magnificent, clean, fertile topsoil that’s capable of sustaining healthy forage for the horses and all who live and work among them.
We in the west tend to think of learning as an intellectual pursuit. I get the importance of garnering intelligence about how and why stuff works. It’s equally important to have a somatic component to learning. Information doesn’t necessarily stick in the human brain unless it is somatically anchored. Horses are spectacular at facilitating this.
It starts at the compost heap. This is the citadel of soil. There’s much to know about turning various species of manure into wickedly great soil. It takes practice, patience and a fair amount of heavy lifting. That’s one of the places the energy of youth comes in handy.
Of course, you and/or your child are there for the horses. You’ll be introduced. In my perspective, the ideal way to make introductions between humans and horses is to let the people watch the horses while they’re at liberty in a pasture among their band. I like to let people watch them, sometimes many times before they get within touching range. I want the people to see how the horses communicate with each other. What do the folks think about how the horses negotiate space, access to food, water and shelter? What sort of impact do these people have on the moods of the horses they’re watching?
A good horse-handling facilitator will find ways to draw your and your child’s attention to what’s important to get a feel for. She’ll move slowly and she’ll put you to work. This isn’t to save on stable help or to pack in unnecessary lessons over irrelevent details. Giving beginners a good start in the horses’ world is time and labor consuming. This gives the humans a chance to begin to get into synch with how life works without all the technological bells and whistles that we’ve developed.
How does the health of the land, water and air effect the well being of the critters and plants who live on it? What are our responsibilities to keep them all healthy and safe? Plenty, if we wish happy and healthy lives.
So what’s the use of that? It’s real. We humans need regular hits of reality to help balance our current dance with the virtual realms. Look around. People are on the brink of extinction because we’ve become confused about how life works. Being among horses brings us back to ground truth. There is no better balm for the soul than that. And, in my opinion, there’s no better healer for the woes of our mixed-up culture than to provide training in the art of holistic horsemanship to as many humans as possible.
As fascinating as the poop patrol is, there’s more to horsemanship than building great soil. I could write a book about it, but others have already done it well. My personal favorite is The Humanure Handbook by J. C. Jenkins. This book focuses on supporting us to overcome our fecophobia in order to learn the wonders of soil making. The text focuses on using human manure, but it’s applicable to barnyard critter poop too.
Kids get into this. Horse manure is a lot easier on the nose and lighter on pathogens than human, dog and cat manure. Horses are vegans. Healthy, fresh horse poop and pee smell great. Different fragrances and textures are indicative of various imbalances. If they’re caught early from a whiff of foul pee or poop, it’s far easier and cheaper to discover the source of the problem and fix it. A great teacher will point out the good and bad qualities of the manure and help you to figure out what it’s telling you about the health of the herd, their fodder, the land it grows on and the water that hydrates it.
A great holistic horsemanship teacher will have also studied Permaculture. She will have applied those principles to her property and management style. This will pour through the education she provides like sun light through a freshly-cleaned window. A barnyard offers many signs about the psychological and intellectual characteristics of the humans who work it.
Poop reveals volumes about the quality of the facility you’re looking at. Is the barnyard tidy? Is poop cleaned up when its dropped or allowed to linger? Are horses living in small, poop-lined pens or paddocks, or out among compatible mates in a clean area large enough to comfortably use all their gaits? Are there flies and mosquitos buzzing around the horses and/or barnyard? Are there fetid pools of sour urine standing around? Do you smell or see pesticides, herbicides or signs of their use, like an unkept barnyard without insects? Is the pasture large enough to provide sufficient healthy fodder to sustain them? Is their natural fodder supplemented with hay or other goodies? Is the hay clean, dry and does it have an inviting fragrance? Are the water troughs clean with plenty of cool, fresh water readily available wherever the horses spend time, or are they full of pond scum? Do the horses have shelter from the sun and storms? Is there enough room for all the horses to find shelter at the same time? Do they get to spend most of their time among their own kind at liberty grazing?
Horses are designed to eat and move most of their waking lives. If their facilities don’t accommodate this, the horses will be under continuous stress. This leads to outsized vet bills, stable drama and shortened lives. For everyone’s health and safety, it’s far better to keep horses the way they have evolved to live. There are few facilities that can afford to do that these days. Land is expensive. Stabling horses may seem efficient and kind. It isn’t, unless it’s just for a few hours a day or when a horse is laid up.
Horses suffer when they’re caged in boxes. They’re highly social and intelligent creatures. Isolated from a band of trusted mates and unable to move, forage and solve problems, they become stressed. All manner of psychological and physiological issues arise. In my opinion, it’s better not to be among horses than to be with highly stressed ones. Unless you can resolve the underlying stressors, they become anxious, sick and unpredictable, which greatly increases the likelihood that someone will get hurt.
Horses aren’t designed to carry weight on their backs. In nature, the only critters that climb aboard a horse’s back are those who intend to eat them. The weight injures their tender, long spines, unless they’re carefully schooled and reminded with specific exercises before and after carrying any amount weight for short distances. Even then, damage happens.
Who thought of putting metal in horses’ mouths to control them? The only thing I can say that’s positive about it is that it’s an effective control device, so long as you don’t care that you’re causing unnecessary pain that your horse will always remember. Between the bit and your weight, you’re demanding that your horse create all manner of physiological blocks between you and her. These blocks protect the horse, initially. As they become ingrained habits, their spines get out of alignment, which eventually results in lameness. Chronically lame horses far too often wind up crammed into tractor trailers headed to meet a kid with a hammer in Mexico.
Horses are almost never the only critters around a good barnyard. Cats, chickens, goats and dogs are a few of horses’ natural allies. Cats eat the mice and rats who are attracted to the grasses and grains stored for the horses. The cats keep down the rodents which in turn keeps down the snake population around the barn. Horses are scared of snakes. Cats and horses often develop intense social bonds, especially when hoses are stabled. The cats can come and go between stalls. They can frequently be found keeping company with horses that are being inadvertently driven crazy by their confinement.
Chickens are another great horse ally. They love to eat ticks, flies and mosquitos. They’ll hunt and peck through the manure pile and even the horses’ backs for eggs, larvae and adult insects. All these critters carry diseases. Chickens keep them in check. They need more care than most barn cats, but it’s simple and quick to provide. The egg dividends they provide are always welcome. The pest control they offer is unsurpassed and safe. They, like cats, often create affectionate relationships among equines. They’re also lovely companions for people.
Goats will happily graze on fodder that horses won’t touch. This prevents the overgrowth of troublesome weeds in pastures. I like to rotate horses and goats through pastures. Goats sport horns that can be dangerous to other barnyard critters. I’m not down with dehorning them for my convenience. Saddly, this makes it so they need us to separate them from the other critters.
One way to enjoy their benefits without deforming them is to cultivate a relationship with a shepherd who will bring them in to feed on what the horses don’t eat in their pastures.
Goats would probably make good therapeutic animals too, though I haven’t tried it. They’re barnyard humorists. Goats love to play and explore. They’re awesome climbers and dedicated escape artists. Life is never boring around them.
Dogs often function as barnyard gatekeepers. They keep the raccoons and other smallish predators at bay. They alert everybody whenever something is amiss. They can be easily shown that the chickens and cats are their responsibilities too. They often wind up developing close relationships among the other critters. This requires some training, but it’s readily doable. Most dogs love this work. It keeps them usefully engaged in the extended family dynamic, which is what all dogs crave.
Beware: not all dogs fit into all barnyards. Check with the stable manager to find out if your dog will be welcome there. Don’t take it personally if s/he isn’t. This may be indicative of good management practices. Critters who share an ecosystem are frequently called on to defend its boundaries. A new dog may be tough to fit into a well-functioning constellation of relationships among the critters and humans on a working ranch.
I’m a huge fan of working with horses from the ground. The types of groundwork that seem to provide the greatest benefit are about being fully in the now with the horse while you work together to solve a problem. The problem may be one of your invention, or a real issue around the pasture or barnyard. Horses get off on teamwork. So do most people.
Horses are designed to live in teams based on survival. So are we. Human brains learn by redundancy. Once horses get something, they keep it. Variety is essential to keep a horse’s mind active and content. That works for people too, though we require more repetition than horses to hold onto new information. It seems that we’re designed to be good teammates. This works best when we can both lead and follow.
The first problem I usually present to a new human and horse is, how are you two going to get from here to there together? Every important life lesson can be covered in that single exercise. How the human goes about engaging the horse to solve this tells volumes about the current status of her or his mind-body-spirit and how the horse feels about it. From there, I know where we need to start and what may need to be unlearned by the person. The horse(s)’ behavior tells me about the human(s) skills, current strengths and blind spots.
Less is more in the horse realms. The very best reward you can give a horse is to be gratefully present in your shared now, demanding nothing. This is mindfulness. It’s harder than you might think, but becomes second nature with practice. Mindfulness is the foundation of every spiritual practice and organized religion across the globe and throughout time. The younger we are when we begin to practice mindfulness, the better. It’s never too late to start. Horses somatically reinforce our mindfulness at every turn.
Mindfulness leads to the development of virtue. I’m not talking about the goodie-two-shoes version of virtue here. What I’m referring to is the deep-down knowing that your interdependency matters. What you do has a real impact on all those with whom you share territory. That impact matters. We are each responsible for it.
Mindfulness and virtue eventually lead to wisdom. That’s the big payoff to life, in my opinion. From a position of wisdom, we can share necessary knowledge about how life works with those who are coming up. Spending significant periods of each day in a state of mindfulness gets us humans to wisdom, eventually.
Horses’ greatest gift to humans is that their size and emotionality demand that we be mindful in their presence. When we are, they’re calm, curious and cooperative. When we’re not, they’re not.
A regular practice is necessary for people to stay on the mindfulness-virtue-wisdom path. Creating relationships with horses and their attendants provides a space in life to practice. This brings us to balance in a world in which our equilibrium is under constant threat. There is nothing more valuable now, as our human-constructed world spins ever more out off kilter.
If I had a horse crazy kid, I would start him or her at a holistically oriented facility with a handler who has healthy horses on healthy land with plenty of good, clean water and horse-friendly fencing. I’d ask her how many kids she’s started and what became of them. How many horses does she have and for how long. Does she provide forever homes for her horses or does she keep them moving through sales? What’s the culture of the facility? Who are the other students, borders, trainers…? What are their goals? How much interaction is there among the humans? Does the handler show and sell her stock? If so, what are her specialties?
I would leave places where horses are nibbling on sand in enclosures that are too small to accommodate a good gallop and a buck among friends. Horses who are stabled for more than a few hours a day are stressed. I wouldn’t send my imaginary child there. Nor would she find herself at a competitive show barn. Horses aren’t about competition. Their greatest lessons are in the sectors of cooperation and empathy.
Horses live to cooperate. They don’t cotton to our Dominion Delusions, though they’ll even cooperate with them. I think it’s a far better life lesson to learn to co-create mutually beneficial relationships between horses and people than it is to try to force horses to be compliant. The choice is between getting more proficient at dominating others and establishing a life-long practice that reinforces the best of our humanity: empathy, loyalty and reciprocity. The choice is yours.