This Horse Ain’t Broke

They used to call it breaking a horse.  Many still do.  Breaking his spirit, breaking his independence.  Taking something correct and complete and destroying it.  It’s fitting terminology for what it used to look like (and still does in some circles).

                 I was going to insert a video clip of a horse getting “broke” here but I just can’t do it, so here’s something cute instead:

201110 baby

My colt Bridger at four months, correct and complete

I broke my arm once.  Just a little, hairline fracture.  It’s healed up now, but it will never be the same.  It can never be unbroken.

The horsemen I follow call it starting a horse.  Starting into a long education.

<Buck Brannaman explains how it’s supposed to be>

We ask the horse to consent to do what we ask.  We give him time and space to consider his options, and in the end, he usually agrees with our suggestions.  It’s a wondrous thing.

But what about when he doesn’t?  In his fifth year, Bridger suddenly started disagreeing.  Suddenly, that is, if one has failed to see the ripples and eddies forming on the surface of the pond.  Bridger has now decided to revolt against those things he doesn’t like.  The sweet, seemingly compliant kid has erupted into a surly teenager.

He’s a horse, surly is the wrong word.  He’s unconfident and worried and irritated and frustrated, by turns or all at once.  Maybe he wasn’t before, or maybe he just wasn’t showing it much.  Now he is.  His modus operandi is to rear up, which can be extremely dangerous.



This is not Bridger and me.  This horse is about to fall over backwards on that person, which could be the end for both of them.  I hope it wasn’t.

So now we have to convince Bridger to quit it.  We have to make him understand that his rearing idea — and his defiance ideas in general — won’t work out for him and he needs to find other ideas.

The plan, implemented by my teacher, Kathleen Sullivan, is to provoke the unwanted response and then show Bridger it’s not in his best interest.  If we pussyfoot around and avoid the tough spot, it will stay in there and solidify.

“If it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected.”  Carl Jung.

Here’s the thing: correcting a problem can look awfully like breaking something.  Kathleen gets pretty vigorous with Bridger when he thinks about rearing up.  In my work with him, it can be the same.  Dust flies, there is sweat.  First he is quick and powerful and troubled, then, soon, he is docile.

I have to find the difference because I know we are not breaking him and won’t break him and can’t break him.  Right?

Here’s the best I can do so far:

  • Breaking: you reach for my french fries and I punch you in the face.  I have my fries and you resent and fear me.  Someday you may punch me back, if I ever see you again.
  • Correcting: you reach for my french fries and I block your hand; you reach harder and I block harder; I block as fast and hard as I need to in protecting my fries; our hands fly like a Three Stooges routine; you give up trying.  I have my fries and you recognize you won’t get any by grabbing.  Maybe you ask politely and I give you some.  Maybe you order your own.  We’re friends.

Sometimes I use the shorthand term “broke” because horse people understand it.  I tell people Bridger’s “broke to tie” or “green broke.”  I hope beyond hope I haven’t broken anything much.  It’s not the plan.






Quiet afternoon in the life of a nascent writer


Re-reading and tweaking the latest draft essay; reading Reading Like a Writer; reading other people’s essays and blog posts; reading one of Jane Goodall’s books because I may be writing about her soon; listening to a podcast interview with a poet I’ve read; wondering why I’m doing any of it; happy as a clam.


What I Could Get Done Today


I woke up at 2:30 a.m. in a clammy sweat, wondering if I have what it takes.  I have a young horse, about half-broke, who needs many hours of careful, confident riding to get to a steady state.  Between here and there, he may need to test the limits, maybe bucking with me, or rearing, or bolting.  We’ve done everything to help prevent that, but I’m 52 years old and not much more than a novice rider.  His need to test could be my undoing.

But I can’t leave him as he is; he could be a danger to himself and others.  I need to see this through, but I don’t know if I can.

I’m not alone in this, I have an excellent teacher on board.  She’s sharing the riding job with me and coaching me throughout.  But there’s an interface between the horse and me where only the two of us can go.  That is where we have to forge this relationship, just us.

The stakes are high.  Every day, we are building the house we will live in together from here on out.  It needs to be right.  Every day, there is some risk that I could be hurt, and I have less leeway for that kind of thing than I used to.  If I push myself too hard, I could implode with reactive fear and aversion.  If I don’t push us both hard enough, we could solidify in a half-baked, uneasy mediocrity.

My teacher points out how much I will learn from working through this.  About horsemanship, about my own limits.  She suggests that, when we succeed (as she has no doubt we will), I will enjoy a relationship and a sense of confidence like no other.  Ten years ago, that would have been enough.  Today, in the early hours before dawn, I wonder if I can learn these things anymore.  If I want to.

The mountain is too high to take in the whole.  Today, after we all had breakfast, I took the horse out and worked with him from the ground.  As I walked and stood alongside him, we practiced paying attention even when he was nervous about rustling bushes.  We practiced responding lightly to subtle moves of the reins.  We practiced fancy footwork on challenging terrain.  I put a penny in the jar, saving toward a well-educated horse.  That’s about all I could do today, and about all I had to.


I’m a word nerd

I love words.  Take the word “neuter” (I know, that’s weird, but it fits into an essay I’m working on so it’s on my mind).  If you consider the derivation of neuter, you find that


James Murray, primary editor of the Oxford English Dictionary

between its various Latinate roots and its related cousins in other languages, somewhere in its ancestry it means “neither” — as in, neither gender — and it’s also descended from the word “also” — as in, this gender and that one.

So neuter is neither gender AND both genders.  At the same time.  Come on, that’s just cool.  It’s like a whole poem or mini-essay, sparking the mind to all kinds of possibilities.  In just one word and its family tree.

I’ve always been a word nerd.  When I was bored as a kid, I spent a lot of time with the Almanac of Words at Play, a book of erudite word games for adults, the kind of thing two literary types had on their shelves for their kids to find.

I’m coming out of the nerd closet.  One of the greatest things about passing 50 is I have little left to prove and time to indulge my passions.  Two hours with horses this morning and quality dictionary time in the late afternoon, what could be better?


When Danny Colicked


20120512 Danny

Danny is a very difficult horse.  For reasons that could fill a book — and will, you can make advance reservations here for a book you can have read to you in 2056 in your hospice room — he long ago decided humans are either contemptible or dangerous, or both.  He’ll accept petting and cookies, but he’ll turn himself inside out to avoid school or work.

The other night, Danny colicked.  The word freezes the intestines of horse owners.  A simple gastric hitch — maybe a clump of food that didn’t process well, an excess of gas, a bit of inflammation — can kill an otherwise healthy horse.

I don’t know why horses are designed with such vulnerable digestive systems.  Horses can’t vomit.  They have a single, small stomach, unlike cows.  Their guts have to digest very tough, fibrous material, so they are extremely long and ropy, twisted into torturous coils in the back halves of their bodies.  With only one way for anything to travel, and a densely packed container, the slightest disruption can cause extreme pain.  Wikipedia lists 16 types of colic, including “other.”  Unresolved colics can kill, particularly when the gut ruptures from the stress.

The other night, I went to bring the horses in from the pasture.  Danny, for all his resistance to my leadership, is always first to come in from grazing.  Because I serve a smidgeon of grain at this time.  When I close the house door to head to the corral, he whinnies at me from wherever he is on the 25 acres.  He comes running to get his nose first into the grain.  The other two horses saunter in as and when they feel like it, sometimes requiring additional persuasion, but not Danny.

This night, Danny walked in slowly, second in line.  He took his place by his bucket.  I looked over all three to make sure all the body parts were where they belonged and headed back to the house.  As I was leaving the corral, I noticed that Danny was just standing over his bucket, not eating.  I paused.  He stood.  I turned to watch him.

His eyes were staring and locked.  To my horror, he turned and bit at his belly, a classic sign of colic.  Before I could move, he suddenly turned and charged aggressively at my older horse.  This was so uncharacteristic, I began to worry in earnest.  I grabbed a halter and collected Danny, taking him into my small training pen.  I began walking him around aimlessly as I’ve been taught.  He was vacant in the eye, stumbling a little as we walked.  We would stop and his knees would buckle a little — either he was thinking of rolling or just unsteady on his legs, both bad signs.  At one point, I let him loose in the pen to see what he would do and he started manically trotting around in small circles with no direction from me.

To make a long story tolerable, we spent an hour and a half together, waiting to see what would happen.  I gave him an anti-inflammatory drug.  I walked him.  I loaded him in and out of the trailer, I had him stand with just his hind feet in the trailer (downward facing pony pose) and then just his fronts.  I walked him some more.  His frightening behavior lessened.  When he seemed a little more with it, I moved him around in small circles, asking him to bend his body laterally.  He immediately started farting and didn’t stop for long minutes.  The relief floated up from him, along with the offending gas.  As we walked back to meet the other horses, he let out a distinct belch and looked satisfied with himself.

So all was well.  The real story happened the next day.  I went into the corral with a halter to catch my young horse for some schoolwork.  Usually, Danny avoids me.  With a turn of his head, a half-turn of the the body, a slow saunter, or a determined trot, he goes away when I come with a halter.  This day, he didn’t.  He stood looking at me.  I approached him as an experiment and, by god, he stepped towards me.  I pretended to catch him, just to make my point, and petted him vigorously all over, before going about my business with the other horse.  The next day, he did the same thing.  The third day, I stood with Danny while he got new shoes put on and he was as peaceful and affectionate as I’ve ever seen him.

We are warned not to anthropomorphize our horses, even while we spend all our time trying to understand their psyches.  Of course we can’t help but anthropomorphize them — we have only our anthropoid eyes to see them with and anthropoid brains to process the data.  Pretending to be objective about animals is like pretending we only have eyes to perceive a park and the sounds don’t matter.  However, we can do our best not to project ourselves onto them, trying our hardest to see them with all of our senses as they are and not as we want them to be.

Did Danny decide I could be trusted after all?  Was he grateful that I helped him?  Did he form a Pavlovian positive association between me and those blissful farts?  Did he sense that I wanted to help and was willing to stick with him until he was fit again and appreciate it?  I’ll never know what happened inside him, but I know how it looked — and felt — from the outside.

20120506 Danny Kate

On not being a natural

How you know when something comes naturally:

  • You feel relaxed and comfortable in it
  • You succeed without trying very hard
  • Your mind, or your body, accommodates itself instantly to the thing
  • The first time feels familiar
  • Something opens doors and propels you along
  • You move more easily and more quickly through it than other people
  • You can’t explain how or why you get it, you just get it

I have a few of those.  I presume everyone does.

Horsemanship is not one of them.  I thought I was reasonably coordinated, fairly strong, adequately brave, thoroughly sensitive and exhaustively honest with myself.  Working with horses puts the lie to all that.  The myriad aspects of this art do not come naturally and destroy my self-concept.  After 10 years of diligent study with an excellent teacher, I:

  • Fumble and flail with the gear
  • Use my hands in the wrong way
  • Place myself in the wrong position
  • Read the horse wrong
  • Make the wrong choices
  • Increasingly quail from the size of the job
  • Fear more
  • Misunderstand my own demeanor

I finally get it that I’m not a natural.  Maybe I’m reaching acceptance, having moved through denial (“I’m awesome, this is great!”), anger (“what the hell is with this stupid horse?!?!”), bargaining (“horse, please, please just understand what I’m trying to say” or “teacher, please do this for me”) and depression (“—-“).

It feels bad.  I vastly prefer succeeding without effort, sailing ahead just because.  I’m embarrassed and ashamed and resentful that I’m only creeping and crawling forward, much more slowly than others.  I’m repulsed by my awkward moves and failed attempts.

But I’m still working at it.  It’s a miracle that I haven’t fled, but here I am.  I keep learning things, I succeed a little now and then.  And yesterday I had quite a breakthrough — I was actually amused at my own incompetence.  Later that afternoon, I was more comfortable in my own skin than I had been in a very long time.

Maybe this is the point.  The satisfaction might be in the job well done, but it also might be in getting comfortable with exactly where you are.  Natural or not.