Saturday, October 08, 2011

lest you think horses lack intention and empathy

This morning Salina had an appointment with her massage therapist. Salina is 28 years old with one eye, arthritic knees, and I have said many times that she has become the heartbeat of November Hill. There is nothing that happens on this plot of land that escapes her attention. She is my partner. While I am inside, not always alert to the goings-on in the pastures that surround our house, my most trusted way of checking the "temperature" of the herd is to look out the window and find Salina. During the summer in the daytime she is often in the barn with hay and fans, and she seems to know when I look out that I need to see her face. She almost always puts her head out her window at just the moment I glance out needing to know what's going on. I know when things are okay from the way she holds her head and ears.

 At night she will come to my bedroom window and whinny if she needs the help of the humans in the family. There is no mistaking the tone in her call. It means COME NOW.

This morning everyone had breakfast tubs and I had allowed Keil Bay to come to Salina and the donkeys' side of the barn thinking that while Salina got her massage I would groom Keil Bay and get him ready for a ride. I had all kinds of thoughts flowing about what we might do in the ride. I even thought I might take him into the back field and jump a few baby jumps.

But I never got to that point. At the appointed massage hour, Keil Bay went into Salina's stall and planted himself in front of her, head emerging into the barn aisle, clearly waiting for something.

When H. arrived, Keil was ready. Keil Bay loves body work. He loves chiropractic adjustment, loves massage, and basically just loves attention of all kinds. He's the only horse I've ever seen who greets the vet with the same enthusiasm with which he greets almost everyone. He is a horse that will come and wait at his stall door or at the gate if he has an injury. Keil is a horse, but he trusts his people to take care of him. Today it was obvious he was asking for a massage.

Even when I got him out of Salina's stall, thinking he would walk on out of the barn, he stopped, and as if to accentuate the point, Salina came out behind him and lined up - LINED UP - behind him, along with both donkeys. If we had been doing structural family therapy I would have noticed that they were physically, literally, putting him FIRST IN LINE. It was not my most observant moment.

I am embarrassed to say that I did not listen. I stood and to my credit I apologized to him that it was not his turn. With a tighter budget not every horse here is getting regular massages right now, and I have Salina on a monthly schedule mostly because of her age and her infirmities. In my mind she has earned that monthly massage and the relief it brings her.

So I told Keil Bay he would get a turn as soon as I could manage it, and I headed him to the front field gate, which I had left open, and which he had ignored, because as much as he wanted the grass, he wanted that massage more. I quite literally shoved him through the gate, with both my hands on his hind end, and being the good sport he is, he went.

I walked back to the barn aisle expecting Salina to be ready for her massage. It always takes her a minute to relax and give up her role as boss mare, but she generally does it and then goes into endorphin bliss as H. works her muscles from head to tail and back up to her head again. I have seen Salina almost fall to the ground due to the extreme relaxation she experiences from this work. The benefits she gets from it are concrete and measurable.

Today she would not have any part of it. She tossed her head, snapped her lips at me, and tried to walk out of the barn. I fussed at her in English and in German. I tried cajoling her. We walked her to the edge of the barn aisle so she could see out. We tied her. She was absolutely furious and let us know in the most emphatic gesturing I've ever seen her do that she was NOT getting a massage.

Finally, in frustration, I unhooked the lead line and said "What are you trying to say?" She walked out of the barn with as bold and fluid a stride as I've seen her take in months. She headed straight down the grass paddock and began looking down the hill.

I turned to H. and said I would just go get Keil Bay. By this time, he'd gone down the hill to the front field and Cody had come up near the gate. So I said, well, maybe Cody is the one who needs it today. I opened the gate and went to get Cody and he walked up to me and then RAN past me to Salina who was pacing back and forth still looking down the hill.

I went and got Keil Bay. As soon as he was in the barn aisle and H. put her hands on him she said "He really does need this." As she worked, it became clear to both of us that in fact Keil REALLY needed the work. He had many tight muscles and some sore spots. As soon as he was in the barn Salina completely settled down and began to graze. Her agitation simply disappeared. About halfway through the work, she came up and looked in, as if she were making sure he was getting what he needed. I herded her back out, and closed the barn doors so we wouldn't end up with a crowd of equine spectators. She came around to the end stall and stood mirroring what Keil Bay did. He rubbed his eye on my shoulder, she rubbed hers on the stall wall. He shook his head, she shook hers.

And throughout his massage he would turn to look at H. with soft eyes and big yawns and licking and chewing.

Nothing these horses and donkeys do surprises me any more. They are advanced beings as far as I'm concerned, and they share more with me than I ever knew to expect when they came into our lives. What surprises me every single time is how absolutely dumb I can be when it comes to listening to them. As much as I watch and note and look for, as devoted as I am to trying to see what it is they have to say to me, I still miss the most obvious statements. I do my human thing and they try their best to say what they need to say ten different ways until they hit on one that clicks for me.

And when I finally get it, when I actually listen and act on what it is they're trying to tell me, they are ALWAYS right. But never are they smug or anything but grateful that I listened.

I've written this before but I feel the need to write it again. If you think equines don't have feelings, don't feel emotion, don't have the brain matter to form thoughts and plans and intentions, that's fine. All I can say is you are missing out on a relationship that is pure and honest and has more to teach than I can put into words.

The only thing you have to do is open your heart and your mind and listen.


Grey Horse Matters said...

It's obvious that Salina is a very special girl. She knew that Keil Bay needed the massage more than she did and made sure he got treated instead of her.

They never cease to amaze me with their intelligence and caring for each other and their humans.

Calm, Forward, Straight said...

Amen :)

ponymaid said...

billie - I can only echo what the others have already said. Good for you for tuning in and acting upon what you "heard".

billie said...

A, she is special and teaches me so much every single day. I walk around in a state of perpetual amazement.

billie said...

C, I will echo it:

amen, sister! :)

billie said...

Sheaffer, I try the best I can. Equines are so exquisitely attuned and gifted in listening to one another - humans always second to them but we try.

Máire said...

Billie, thank you for writing this. You have a special thing going on there because you have opened yourself to listening to your herd. I love your family therapy image.

billie said...

Maire, thank YOU. I love reading your thoughtful musings about horses and herds and what they can share with us. It was truly a Virginia Satir moment when they put Keil Bay first in line. And yet I didn't even see it initially!

Victoria Cummings said...

I so totally agree with what you have written, Billie. i mentioned on my blog that I listened to an interview with Linda Kohanov recently. I hope that you take a few moments to check it out. Facing the fact that Silk is getting older and that I need to prepare myself for the reality that she won't be with me forever, I found it really helpful to listen to how openly and honestly Linda speaks about her soul sister, Rasa. It's at These mares are amazing gifts to us and I don't think it's accidental that we have been chosen to care for them. Salina is an amazing horse.

billie said...

I got the emails from Mark about the recent interview - and had hoped to listen. As usual, something came up that morning and I ended up missing it! Part of the problem with truly being with and listening to our horses is that we don't have as much time to listen to anything else... :)