My first time on the back of a horse was when my Grandfather swung me up onto Penny, one of his ancient Belgians, who had taken him through the Great Depression and World War Two, saving his small farm. He'd learned how to farm with horses, way before the introduction of the tractor and machinery. It was a very simple choice for him to make, putting away the machines. "Horses give us so much more than a tractor. Never forget that little girl." That was what he told me.
He was organic before there was a name for organic, using the composted manure of his milk cows, pigs, chickens and horses on his fields and in his truck gardens. " If the worm doesn't like the corn, neither do we." He was a wise man, my Grandpa.
Penny and Sun were ancient when I met them, but I didn't know that. I was barely five, so to me the sun literally rose and set in them. They were big enough to make it look like that to me, so it was so! They were great mountains, as all Belgians are, and part of the family. They were always there, like the trees and, well, like the sun that always looked like it came up from behind them.
I was nine when they left this Earth, and shattered. I still sometimes cry when I think about them. They gave me such a gift with their friendship and quiet patience. Both of them were my teachers, showing me how to balance and move on their wide backs. And when I was too strong in my requests to move ( "Come on Penny! Move!" kick...kick...kick), she would turn and take hold of my toe and squeeze just enough to get my attention. " Not so hard little girl. I understand you when you whisper. Don't shout so! Now ask again, but be polite." And I would. Worked every time. Smart horse! Who was "training" whom?
A couple of weeks ago a friend contacted me and asked me to take care of her horses while she was out of town. They're horses that she cares for, belonging to another person who no longer takes the time that it takes. Sometimes aging is inconvenient, so people do their best to avoid it. In this case, my friend is the winner. She is having the time of her life, learning from two older horses the way that I did all those years ago. While she is their caretaker, they have become hers too. So when she asked me to help, I said "Absolutely...I would love to help!" I never pass up the chance to meet another horse. And it's a privilege to meet such venerable elders, so how could I say no?
They're staying at a former riding academy. These are the last two horses left, living by themselves except for my friend. She lives only a few minutes away, so she has the chance to be with them two or three times a day at least. Whenever I go to see her there, I find her sitting in the field on the ground, horses near by grazing. She is slowly becoming part of their herd, showing them that some people really do stay the course and are worth knowing.
The little horse you see in the image above is Rocky, an ancient Morgan or part Morgan. He has been loved by countless little girls during his life, and it shows. He was waiting for me every morning when I arrived, calling. Even now, when he's half blind and creaky in his bones, he still likes to have his head scritched and his coat brushed. Loves his grain too, although he drops quite a bit of it and takes a while to eat. He's lost some teeth, so he's on a complete senior grain in a pellet form. His twelve or so hours a day in the field is spent pulling up and dropping grass, but he loves it especially when the sun is out to warm him. He's the alpha too, even though Penny is considerably taller than he is and, as frail as he's gotten, quite capable of tipping him over. He directs Penny when they are in the field and she follows willingly.
My friend has done a great job of organizing the end of the huge barn (used to hold thirty horses at one time) that Penny and Rocky are in. The very few things they need are within easy walking distance, right across the aisle, of the two stalls being used. In fact, she's opened the two end doors of the barn and they now have rooms to stand in where they can lean out to watch the world. When the weather is better, she leaves them outside 24/7 but this has been an unusually hard Winter. The stalls in out of the weather have been well used and appreciated by the remnant herd she cares for.
While I was there, I admit to poking around, looking at things and wondering how hard it would be to reopen a full facility again. It would take quite an investment of time and money. I'm still business woman enough to know that, so it would be out of my reach now. But during the quiet moments, while the horses were eating their breakfast yesterday, I leaned on the wall and listened to the past.
I could hear excited young voices coming and going, cars being parked and parents asking when they should return to pick up their children. I could see horses in the fields, watching for their partners and running to the gates to greet them. And, in the full sized indoor arena (still in very good condition and being used by dog agility trainers for now. I would LOVE to have the use of an arena like that. Oh my...the things I could do!) I could hear the voices of the teachers, correcting riding positions and coaching their young students to use a lighter hand on the reins.
And then Rocky leaned out to nicker to me, telling me he was ready to go outside. Reality is a hard task master. Sometimes people have to give up on their dreams for one reason or another. Rocky and Penny have lived there for years with no students to teach or people to care for them except whomever the newest groom is. My friend is there as permanently as possible. She is a horseless person who loves horses, so having these two old "teachers" come into her life is a true gift.
Penny is an ancient retired thoroughbred. Her back is dipped and the muscles are atrophied. Some of her joints are swollen now and it looks like her pasterns may have some fusing in them. She has cataracts that you can see when outside in the sun. No one will ride with her again, but she still loves attention. And she still has a few lessons to teach too.
This morning John, my husband and a new student in the world of horses, went with me to help out. He and Penny made a real connection. He was the one who fed her her grain, haltered her and, on the way to the field, played a few games with her. He was anxious to see what an old riding academy looked like and to meet two horses not our own.
They played some Friendly Game, getting used to each other and then he taught her to give to the lightest pressure, using the Porcupine Game (love the names Pat Parelli has given to the basic moves used in communicating with horses. Great teaching tools!). Then he haltered her, using one of our rope halters, and out we went.
On the way to the field he stopped and backed her a few steps at a time, played the Driving game from zone two (her neck) and disengaged her hindquarters, a game Parelli calls Hide Your Hienie. By the time we arrived at the field, she was in his pocket! " OH! You speak horse! Tell me what to do. I'm yours." and so he walked around the field with her right beside him, at Liberty. All I could do was stand there with Rocky, scritching his itchy places and watch, smiling. For him it was magic!
Before we left both of us went through the barns (yes, there is a second barn with another six stalls in it, all of them full of garbage. What a shame!) and looked at the fences, water sources, arena and, of course, made sure Rocky and Penny's stalls were clean and ready to come home to. Both of us dreamed and then let the dreams go. Maybe that place will be bought and reopened by younger people with deeper pockets than ours. It would be a lovely wish, wouldn't it? "Horses give us so much more..."
When we left, both Rocky and Penny turned to watch us leave and followed out to the end of the pasture they were in. From far away they looked like the young horses they were not so very long ago, waiting for their morning to begin with excited children there to teach and care for.
#7 Horses teach humans and humans teach horses. , Eight Principals of Horse-Man-Ship, Pat Parelli
I am, ever yours, Nancy, smiling at you from OZ