Zen and the Art of Licking and Chewing


A month into our burgeoning relationship, Mystic and I took part in the Cooler Horsemanship clinic on May 28-29. If you’ll pardon my presumption in speaking for Mystic, I think it was a therapeutic experience for him. As for me, I understand my new partner a whole lot better now.

On Saturday James worked with us in the round pen. The agenda of walk-trot transitions on a 22-foot line shifted about ten minutes into the session, when Mystic stopped and fixed his liquid brown eyes on mine. He seemed to be asking, What should I do next?

I was about to give him his marching orders when James said, “Let’s pause here. I’m seeing a horse who’s anxious and locked up in his thoughts. I’d like him to let go of some stress and process this new experience before he moves on. Let’s wait until he gives a lick and chew.”

His words took me by surprise—I thought Mystic looked fairly relaxed. Then James started naming the signs:

“He’s got what I call radar ears—they point sideways—which means he’s unsure. His eyes are glassy and there’s no movement in his tail. These are really subtle signs, but it means he’s sliding toward what Pat Parelli calls ‘catatonic right brain mode.’ A catatonic horse has gone so far inside himself that he’s shut down his senses. Once he comes back into them, he may explode.”

James told about the time he put a saddle on a horse who seemed sleepy and relaxed. The horse, who’d been repressing his fear until that moment, promptly reared and fainted. That’s right, fainted.

Mystic had every right to feel woozy. Pushed mercilessly to perform in dressage and jumping, he’d become increasingly fearful and anxious, until his emotions were too big to internalize anymore. He’d started bucking and rearing to vent them. Nobody listened to what he was really saying—I can’t handle this stress anymore; please pay attention to my needs. Instead he’d been sidelined and declared unusable.

Mystic and I faced each other for a long time in that round pen. He lowered his head a couple of times and cocked his back leg—both signs of increasing relaxation. But he didn’t lick and chew.

“All right, how about you take him on a little vacation,” James said, meaning I should let Mystic explore his environment. He and I ambled around the ring, stopping at points of interest. He sniffed a western saddle balanced on a rail, got a close look at the spectators, and peered through the slats of the round pen doors. As I stood with the lead line in my hand, listening to James and half-watching Mystic, I heard it.

An unmistakable soft, smacking, moist sound.

Lick, chew.

And then again.

Lick. Chew.

Mystic’s head was low and easy, and he was working his mouth like a baseball player savoring a wad of chaw. The horse beside me looked essentially the same as he had a minute ago, yet he had shifted inside: his view of the world had begun to change. In the past, when he’d asked, What should I do next? the answer had been Work harder. Be perfect. Do exactly what I say.

This time he’d gotten an entirely new answer: Relax. Explore. Be a horse.

Those licks and chews meant he was mulling over the experience, letting go of tension, letting in trust and positive feelings.

There you go,” James said to Mystic, his tone so warm and approving that I wanted to lick and chew to get some of that affirmation. Inside I was licking and chewing, digesting all this remarkable information that was so nuanced yet so powerful.

James smiled apologetically. “Sorry, I know you were expecting to do ground work—but I just saw this look in Mystic’s face and had to take it in a different direction.”

Sorry? Are you kidding?

Mystic had traveled further in one session than any amount of circles on a lunge line could ever take him.

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Horses and Men I Have Dated

About ten years ago, in the midst of a particularly ragged run of dating, I came up with the notion that the perfect man will appear when the perfect horse enters my life.

It was a poetic-sounding dodge, really. I knew I wouldn’t own a horse for a long time—if ever—and, frankly, I enjoyed riding a lot of horses, whether borrowed, begged, or leased. They all had something to teach me. I was not particularly interested in “settling down,” in the equine or human sense.

I also liked dating a range of men, for the most part, except perhaps the time when I threw up in one fellow’s driveway after developing a searing migraine. Or the time my much-younger neighbor, a therapist who was a dead ringer for Dominic Monaghan, bowed out of a short-lived fling with me, saying, “This just doesn’t seem to be working. It’s odd, because I fantasized about you for two years.”

So the fantasy was better than the reality? Gee, thanks.

Now that I really think about it, riding horses has been a lot more rewarding than dating.

Let me introduce you to a couple of hunks I’ve ridden. I’ve got others up my sleeve, but I’ll save them for later, along with some stories about a police officer I’ve been dating. Suffice to say, if he were a horse, he’d be a draft-mustang cross, alpha stallion, with a crazy streak.

Below is Ethan, a 20-year-old Lippitt Morgan with the constitution of a teenager and the brain of a Rhodes scholar. He’s as bomb-proof as they come and has a truly noble profile. God bless Justin Morgan and his horse.

Here’s Sol (Spanish for “sun”), a trail-happy, muscle-bound palomino quarter horse. We spent endless afternoons riding along the banks of the Connecticut River, taking in the sea-level view of Thomas Cole’s famous painting.

As for my notion about the perfect man and the perfect horse, I’ve jettisoned it now that Mystic, the white horse of my childhood dreams, has appeared in my life. Honestly, the thought that my theory might prove true terrifies me.

Whoa, Nellie!

Today I tagged along to watch James do a session with Nellie, a five-year-old sorrel quarter horse who’d rightly earned the reputation of being dangerous. The farrier was scared of her and so was her owner, Joan, despite being the only human Nellie trusted. The strong-rumped mare had a way of kicking out and muscling in on Joan; with everyone else, she was simply untouchable. The worse she got, the less handling she received, which reinforced her negative behavior. She wasn’t bad-natured, simply mistrustful, fearful, and dominant—a tough combination in a 1,000-pound prey animal.

Nellie spent the first hour tearing around the round pen, wild-eyed, working up an impressive lather, while James calmly stood with a long, telescoping stick garnished with a whispery strip of plastic at the end. He lightly shook the stick in Nellie’s direction whenever she took flight, goading her to run faster—straight into her primal fear. “She’ll eventually learn that panicking doesn’t solve anything,” he explained. “Right now she’s causing her own discomfort. She needs to learn that comfort lies here with me.”

Every time Nellie paused, James stopped flexing his stick and moved a few steps away from her, giving her space to rest and reflect. “I want her to realize that it’s easier to put her attention on me than to run away.”

Since flight had been her modus operandi for five years, Nellie didn’t take easily to the new option. She ran, slid, staggered, and catapulted herself around the ring with amazing force, barely acknowledging James as he repeatedly made her change direction with a quick shake of his stick.

After countless exhausting sprints around the ring, Nellie’s attitude slowly began to change. She started turning her face to James and even taking a few tentative steps in his direction. She warily let him touch her sides with the telescoping stick, shifting nervously but not bolting. She seemed to be asking, What do you want from me?

Through his body language and patient, repetitive motions, James answered her question: I want you to pay attention to me, to trust me, to respect me.

It was not the answer she wanted. Nellie kicked out in frustration and loped around the ring some more, her energy flagging. She stopped, clearly baffled about what to do next.

“We’ll take a break now,” James said, climbing onto the rail of the round pen, where he perched like an old cowhand. “She’s less likely to run so hard after she pauses and feels how sore her muscles are.”

He was right. After a fifteen-minute break, she balked and ran a bit, but without the same conviction. Then came what James called “the mudslide”—the point at which Nellie capitulated completely, handing her entire being over to his leadership. She followed James around like a child, munching proffered treats and soon letting him attach a lead line to her halter.

“I’d say we’re done for the day,” he said, leading her to the barn for a cool rinse with the hose. She stood quietly while he sprayed her with water, a far cry from the turbulent animal of two hours ago. To my admiring eyes, she looked like a different horse: softer, more giving, surer of her place in the world.

Zip & Amanda

For the past year, I’ve watched Amanda grow from a shy girl to a confident twelve-year-old. She’s got more determination and focus than people twice her age.

Amanda spends several hours a day at Fiore Farms with her horse, Zip, a spunky five-year-old black quarterhorse. Translated to human years, he’s twenty-one to her twelve—but, as they say, boys take longer to mature.

Amanda, whose parents promised her a horse when she was old enough to take responsibility for one, fell in love with Zip the moment she first saw him in March 2009. Zip was only three and not ready for steady riding, so a trainer spent a year working with him.

Unfortunately, the traditional methods she used—emphasizing discipline, coercion, and obedience—sent him into a tailspin. He began rearing and bucking under saddle. “Your horse isn’t safe,” the trainer told Amanda and her mother, Angela. “You should consider selling him.”

The thought devastated them. Zip followed Amanda around like a lovestruck teenager and was always gentle in her presence. They knew Zip had a fundamentally sweet nature. Something had gone terribly wrong during his months of training.

They couldn’t sell him. Amanda couldn’t ride him. It seemed like a hopeless situation.

A year later, under the ongoing tutelage of James Cooler, Amanda and Zip are best friends and companions. Zip carries her on his back willingly, trotting around the ring with his head low and his neck relaxed. He backs up at the shake of his lead line, does graceful side passes, and canters in easy circles on a lunge line.

Angela homeschools her daughter so she has time for Zip. Rain or shine, Amanda is out at the farm, taking lessons with James, playing with Zip, learning to understand how he thinks, building a trusting relationship with him. The proof is in the pudding. He’s never bucked her once.

James calls Amanda his number-one student and marvels at her stick-to-it-iveness.

She’s an inspiration for us grown-ups, who may need a few horse years to catch up to her.

Hoarding Is Easy, Letting Go Is Hard

Coming up with a name for a blog is no easy thing, especially when you’re fixated on a title that someone else already nabbed. I tried White Horse, Windhorse, Running Horse, Horseology, Horse Lover, and dozens of variations on that theme.

No go.

Every time the message came up “Domain name taken,” I had a little tantrum. Pretty soon I was saying, “Who are these people? I bet they’re terrible writers. Why are they taking all the good names? How greedy of them.”

It reminds me of a family story about my rather formidable grandmother, Lola, at the outset of World War II. She became convinced that people would buy every jar of black raspberry jam available, causing a terrible shortage. So she bought all the black raspberry jam she could find. As my grandfather wryly pointed out, “She wanted to buy it before the hoarders got there.”

That story always reminds me to examine my own hoarding tendencies. In the case of the blog title, I was hoarding resentment and the belief that any title I dreamed up was rightly mine.

The opposite of hoarding is letting go. That tends to be a difficult call, but it yields remarkable returns. I’ve found, counterintuitively, that the more I let go, the more comes my way.

Once I dropped my fixation on certain blog titles, my imagination started running free. Pretty soon the words “galloping mind” hove into view. I’ve used that phrase many times to describe my thoughts, which have a way of racing around beyond my control. I’ve had to learn to detach from them and watch them from afar, as if they were a horse galloping in a field. Otherwise I’d be riding them all over the place, getting tossed and carried hither and yon. I wouldn’t be able to focus on the here and now.

I love the title Galloping Mind; it suits me better than those previous, obvious options. But before I got there, I took ownership of a different blog title—Horse Spirit—because I wanted something, even though it wasn’t quite right. I wanted to get there before the hoarders did.

Unfortunately, I don’t know how to undo that domain. Somewhere out there, a blogger-in-the-making has attached to the title Horse Spirit and found it’s not available. Because I’m hoarding it.

As for my grandmother’s black raspberry jam—she never used any of it; it sat on the pantry shelves for the duration of the war, gathering dust, until it was tossed away. She didn’t even like the stuff.

Into the Mystic

All I ever wanted was a white horse when I was growing up. I never got that horse, though I did get a bay, blue-eyed Welsh pony when I was eleven. She threw me frequently, with shrewd precision.

I had it coming to me.

I rode that pony to within an inch of her life. I thought riding was a simple proposition: climb on a horse, dig in your heels, and go. My pony knew better and tried to tell me different, but I wasn’t listening, no matter how many times she tossed me. I had my own agenda.

Forty years later, I’m a better listener, which helps explain why I’m getting a master’s in counseling and also studying natural horsemanship. I want to listen and learn and forge keen-spirited relationships that bring out the best in each of us, whether horse or human.

Maybe I’m on the right path, because something wonderful happened to me.

My white horse appeared.

Actually, I’ve been walking past him for three years without paying much attention. Mystic lives at the stable where I ride, Fiore Farms, but he’s been declared unrideable. His past and heritage are uncertain, though he looks Andalusian and was reportedly a high performer who got pushed into burnout. I’ve known him only as a pot-bellied pasture horse, sweet but emotionally distant.

Now Mystic is my special horse and I’m his special person. He and I are learning natural horsemanship together with James and Kate Cooler. We’re starting at square one, finding out how to understand each other and communicate our wishes and needs. Groundwork—or groundplay, as James calls it, reminding us to have fun—is where we’re beginning because that’s the foundation of natural horsemanship.

The notion of working with a horse on the ground is new to me: I always thought horses were for riding. To my surprise, groundplay actually is fun. It’s a chance to bond, to learn each other’s cues, to sort out leadership issues, to warm up and calm down. To romp.

In just a few groundplay sessions, I’ve learned that Mystic and I share certain similarities: we’re both hypersensitive, eager to please, and have performance anxiety. He’s a little baffled by my ineptitude; I’m in awe of his gracefulness but am not sure how to channel it. I’m constantly entangling myself in the lead line and dropping the progress stick and string. Mystic’s anxiety frequently causes him to stop, lift his tail, and squeeze out a few plops of manure while looking at me with slightly desperate eyes. We both exhale gratefully when I pause to rub his neck, giving us a break from our beginners’ confusion. We’ll be working on these presenting issues and all the others that are bound to emerge, with James as our master teacher and couples therapist.

But I’m excited about doing the work because I’ve been waiting a lifetime for my white horse. Funny that Mystic was there all along; I just wasn’t looking and listening hard enough.

Horse Crazy

I grew up horse crazy. Then, at 14, I became boy crazy and gave up my pony in favor of boys with shag haircuts who listened to Pink Floyd (it was the ’70s). In hindsight, I made a foolish trade-off. As Kierkegaard says, “Life must be lived forward, but can only be understood backwards.”

For several decades, I lived my life in near idle, longing for something I couldn’t put my finger on. I was doing all the expected things; I went to college, got married, fixed up an old New England house with my husband, had a son, worked as a writer and editor. But I got to the point where I couldn’t move forward at all. Unhappiness paralyzed me.

How I got unstuck is a dramatic story involving going crazy, literally; I’ll save that tale for another day. The point is that after a startling series of implosions, I started to become myself again: the strong-minded girl who loved horses and believed adventure lay around every corner.

And so, at 40, facing midlife square in the jaw, I dared myself to climb on a horse after a hiatus of more than 25 years. The experience did not go well. Any muscle memory from my early riding years had collapsed into senility. The horse ambled around the ring while I wobbled and teetered and my riding instructor searched for something encouraging to say. I imagined falling off; even though I was wearing a helmet, I pictured my head splitting open like a watermelon. I felt fragile, tearful, and overwhelmed by all I had lost in a quarter century. The adventurous horsewoman in my head was only a phantasm.

I almost gave up, but I sensed I would lose a lot more than a future with horses if I did. I’d be losing the self I was just beginning to construct—not the fearless girl who rode her pony bareback around fields at a gallop, but someone brave in a different way: a woman who was finding her own way, daring to be a beginner again, making peace with discomfort, and letting go of illusions.

Changing your life, I came to realize, is a lot like getting on a horse for the first time. There’s fear—of the unknown, of getting hurt, of trusting your life to something bigger than you. And then, when you’re brave enough to let go of the pommel, comes the realization: you can find balance if you have faith in yourself, your horse, the present moment, and the point you’re riding toward.

I won’t even tell you how many lessons it took before I regained a fraction of the riding knowledge I used to have. I hit the dirt more than once. I looked like a fool to anyone who might have been watching. I got mad at myself for being a slow learner. I envied anyone who could ride better, which was pretty much everyone. I cried privately. A lot.

But, in hindsight, none of that really matters because I got to where I needed to be. Now, although I don’t have a horse of my own, I lead a life rich in horses. I’m living my life forward with joy and passion—I guess it’s just horse craziness come back around in fuller form.