Perfect Horse, Unearthly Horse

This has been the most magical summer of my life. Thanks to James and Kate, I’ve begun to understand how horses think, why they behave as they do, and how to create a loving partnership with them. Thanks to Mystic, I’ve experienced a heart-and-soul connection with a horse. He’s been my student, my teacher, my muse, and my best friend.

Mystic’s past largely remains an enigma. All I really know is that he arrived at Fiore Farms on a truck of rescue horses years ago and has clearly suffered trauma. I like to think his early years were happy and carefree: I imagine him spilling into the world as a newborn foal, a slippery white bundle of long legs and curiosity, the future wide open with possibility. He didn’t choose to be treated badly—humans made that choice for him. The good news is that rebirth is possible every day, every moment. Wounds can be healed, and tender care is a sweet salve.

Summer ends for me today because graduate school begins tomorrow. I’ll continue to write blog posts; however, they will be less frequent. I’ll play with Mystic at least once or twice a week throughout the school year, but the luxury of spending nearly every day with him is gone for now. I’m feeling the loss already, yet I have faith that we’ll find fresh rhythms and ways of being. Every loss clears the way for something new.

The poem below by Ted Hughes is in honor of Mystic, his birth, and his rebirth.


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Pedestalophilia

“The adult horses that we have pedestal trained have all seemed to enjoy the height added to their stature and also the stretching out of their muscles when the front feet are on the pedestal.”Allen Pogue, trick horse trainer

“Pedestal work helps to develop physical dexterity while increasing self-confidence and channeled boldness….Pedestal training gives a horse somewhere to go, rather than to just act out on his flight instinct and get away….it gives the horse a place to stay. Quiet feet equal a focused mind.”Suzanne De Laurentis, trick horse trainer

Mystic living on the edge

Mystic has not only conquered the horse pedestal (see “King of the Horse Pedestal”), he is now a pedestal addict. It seems to exert a weird gravitational force on him: he’s like a dowsing rod drawn to a field of energy. I’ve learned not to do ground play near the pedestal because Mystic will inexorably drift toward it. If I stand on the pedestal to climb on his back, he tries to put his hooves on it too; when I back him off, he moves toward it again. “It’s my pedestal time,” I tell him with a slight huff. I mean, sheesh, don’t I have rights too?

So what is it about the pedestal? Why is it so alluring? Kate pointed out that the pedestal seems to represent something different to each horse. For example, her Arab-Friesian mare, Kleo, enjoys the showmanship that goes with it. She knows she looks gorgeous, and she’s happy to share that fact with any admirers in the stands. She’s like a TV pitchwoman showing a product off to its best advantage. Whether the product is the pedestal or Kleo’s beauty doesn’t really matter: you’re ready to produce your credit card without question.

Kleo, America's next top model horse

Zip, Amanda’s six-year-old quarter horse, likes the pedestal because it’s a fun toy. He thinks of it as something to goof around with. Sometimes I imagine him chanting “I’m king of the castle, and you’re the dirty rascals!” while perching his feet on the pedestal. Or perhaps he’s fantasizing about standing at the top of a playground slide, enjoying the pause before the whooshing trip down.

Zip and Amanda at the horse playground

For Mystic, the pedestal represents some kind of inner soul journey. He’s a little high and glassy-eyed after he steps down, as if he’s been ingesting magic mushrooms or cannabis. I’ve learned not to send him straight into lunging or anything too physically or mentally demanding right after. Instead we do a “sober walk” around the arena, where he can sniff at objects and come back to earth. Asking anything more of him would be like asking a woozy frat boy to name all the US Presidents in chronological order.

Thanks to Mystic, I’ve gotten to experience my own pedestal high. It happened a few weeks ago, when we approached the pedestal after a riding session. I walked him right up to the edge of it, figuring he’d forgo his favorite pastime because of the pesky human on his back. Suddenly…lurch, heave, hidey-ho—up we went! I’ve never ridden an elephant or a camel, but I imagine the thrill I felt was something like sitting on one of those giant creatures as it rises from kneeling to standing. I also felt incredibly honored. It was like having a date take you to his favorite place—a hidden waterfall or his childhood treehouse—knowing he’d never shown it to any other girl. Finally there was room for both of us, and he’d been magnanimous enough to make it happen. I stroked his neck and leaned forward to hug him, but no gesture seemed big enough to thank him.

Mystic shares his high with me

One problem: now we have several Fiore Farms horses vying for pedestal time. This can and does lead to severe cases of pedestal envy. Luckily horses don’t carry pistols; otherwise we might have a High Noon situation on our hands.

Kleo and Mystic engage in a staredown

Given the increasing number of pedestal addicts at Fiore Farms, I decided to look into getting another stand. They’re not cheap, I discovered. There’s a sturdy aluminum version from Modern Ironworks that looks like a big dog bowl and costs $399 plus $90 shipping:

The best buy I found was on trick trainer Jackie Johnson’s website. It’s made of plywood and costs $80 (plus $65 shipping).

I also found some interesting homemade variations. One was a dirt-filled tire topped by a plywood cover. Not exactly aesthetically pleasing (the idea of Kleo standing on this is like picturing Gisele Bündchen leaning on a Wal-Mart trash can), but low-cost for sure.


My favorite homegrown version, offered by the same enterprising woman who made the car-tire pedestal, is the one below. It might be cost-free initially, but my guess is that a handyman will be fixing those porch steps sometime in the not-so-distant future. And how do you explain the damage to your insurance agent?

For now we’ll settle for one pedestal at Fiore Farms, but it’s fun to imagine Kleo, Zip, and Mystic lined up on three pedestals, front feet elevated, heads in the sky, luxuriating in pedestal love.

How To Think Like a Horse

This summer I’ve been building a library of horse books, especially ones focusing on equine psychology and behavior. The stack on my bedside table is a little intimidating, but I’m slowly working my way through it. Here’s how they look spread out:

And below are the counseling-related books I’ve acquired in the past year. The stack on the right represents required textbooks for the UNCG counseling program. The books on the left are ones I bought for my own interest.

This provides visual proof that humans are even more complicated than horses, in case you hadn’t noticed. Maybe if horses could speak in words and sit on therapists’ couches, the amount of literature in both fields would be more balanced.

As I work my way through the horse books, I’ll offer occasional reviews. Today I’m putting out my thoughts on How To Think Like a Horse.

How To Think Like a Horse (2006, Storey Publishing, $19.95)  is a good primer in horse behavior. It’s well designed, with lots of color photos, diagrams, drawings, and charts. Author Cherry Hill writes clearly and accessibly, with the firm-minded warmth I’ve come to expect in thoughtful horse people. I adored her as soon as I read these words in her preface:

When I was a very young child, I not only wanted to be with horses all of the time, but I even wanted to be a horse. I galloped, reared, kicked, and nickered. When I saw a new thing, I’d walk up very cautiously, roll my head forward and down to get a really good look, and then I’d jump lightly to the side with a squeal. Then I’d approach the item again to smell it with an air of suspicion and high alertness, all the while making snorting and blowing sounds. I even did this at the dinner table to inspect my food….Somewhere in grade school, much to my parents’ relief, my external horse behavior subsided somewhat, but the core of my being had become part horse.

In the first chapter, she talks about how to become part horse—you simply need to have “a deep love, respect, and admiration for horses.” Amen.

The book is studded with useful facts such as often a horse should eat, what horses don’t like, and how to use grooming tools considerately. If you own or take care of a horse, you’ll find more hands-on care tips than you might expect from the title.

Hill also gets into the nitty-gritty of horse physiology: senses, reflexes, digestive and skeletal systems, hoof growth. She provides plenty of information to chew on, but not so much as to be overwhelming.

My favorite chapters were “The Nature of the Horse,” “Good Behavior, ‘Bad’ Behavior,’ and “Communication.” These dealt with topics such as bonding, pecking order, horse play, temperament and attitude, and reading a horse’s body language. She provides a six-page chart of vices (e.g., bolting feed, head-shyness) complete with causes and treatment. The treatments are fairly simplistic, but still useful.

Some cool facts I learned:

  • Horses see with both monocular and binocular vision; because of the latter, you must show everything to both sides of the horse.
  • Horses’ ears are the most mobile of any domestic animal; they can twist nearly 180 degrees from front to back.
  • Horses tend to move away from light intermittent pressure (it’s irritating) and lean into heavy, steady pressure (it’s comforting).
  • In the wild, horses live in a matriarchal society.
  • Pigs freak horses out—there’s something about pig behavior, smells, and noises that horses just don’t like.
  • Horses sleep 20 to 50 times a day in tiny naps.
  • Horses are said to have a memory second only to an elephant’s.

The last chapter, “Training,” was just a puff of air: there was very little to it. Then again, How To Think Like a Horse seems aimed at breadth rather than depth. That’s the only fault I found in it: I wish the author had provided more in-depth detail. Although experienced horse folks probably won’t find much new in this book, it’s a commendable guide for people who are just beginning to learn about horses. I put myself in the second category, even after a dozen years of riding, because understanding horses is whole different ballgame than just sitting on them.

Finding Happiness at Shangrila

A 91-year-old guest at Shangrila, riding Pretty Boy. Inspirational!

A couple of years ago I won a stay at Shangrila Guest Ranch through a fundraising event for Horsepower. I headed up to southern Virginia for an overnight stay and fell in love with the place and its good-hearted owners, Gary and Julie Holmes. Since then I’ve made many trips back to help with trail rides, brainstorm business ideas, and babysit Gary and Julie’s kids, Dillon and Melody. That’s what happens when you go to Shangrila: you start out a guest and pretty soon you feel like family.

Dillon and Melody cooking up mischief in the kitchen

I visited Shangrila this past weekend, intending to stay for one night. One night stretched into two: how could I give up an invitation to two full days on the trail, Julie’s birthday dinner, a nighttime Gator ride though the woods, a starry-night campfire, and fun with the world’s cutest kids?

Adam and Kat, a young couple from Toronto, were weekend guests. She’d ridden once before in Mexico, where the folks running the operation enjoyed putting gringos on speedy horses and butt-slapping them (the horses, not the tourists) to run wildly for an hour. “I didn’t think I was going to live through it,” Kat recalled. Gary put her on Pretty Boy, a good-natured walking horse with a permanently nervous look thanks to white sclera around his irises (an Appaloosa trait that must have crept into his gene pool).  Kat looked a bit white-eyed too, but she endured the trail with good grace and a diminishing stream of tiny screams and “omigods!” Adam, a veterinarian assistant who likes working with big animals, was a natural. After four hours on the trail, he was ready to keep going.

Gary (far right) leading a trail ride

Bandit

Gary has hundreds of acres and more than twenty horses—mostly Tennessee Walkers—who get to roam in big pastures. With all the horses (not to mention mules and donkeys), I always have a lot of choices for riding. On my first day I rode Bandit, a spotted walking horse whose former owner must have ridden him at top speed. After a couple of years in Gary’s hands, he’s learned to slow down and enjoy the trail, but he’s still a Ferrari underneath, with a supersensitive mouth and sides.

On my second day, I stepped out of the guesthouse and heard Fancy, a Tennessee Walker-quarter horse cross, nicker at me. “Take me with you!” she seemed to be saying. She’s a bit high-octane for the novice rider, so she hasn’t been worked much. Fancy got her day on the trail—she managed to squeeze in some head tossing and one half-cranky, half-spirited buck, but all in all she was a gem. I still haven’t fully mastered the Tennessee Walker flat walk and running walk, but I’m getting a little better with each try.

Fancy in her pond-side pasture

The trip took me from stressed-out about freelance writing deadlines and the prospect of grad school starting up soon to totally mellow. It was a good reminder that stepping out of your usual environment—even if it’s just for a day or two—is good for mind, body, and soul. I urge anybody who’s reading this blog to come up with a creative short getaway and do it before summer ends. Your inner horse will thank you. Oh, and if you know something about horses and feel like changing your life completely, talk to Gary, who’s looking for a manager. Bed, board, and your choice of horse included.

Dillon and Rosie