Thursday, November 15, 2012

Only connect

My friend Nicole Birkholzer is like a family therapist for people and horses. She writes a fascinating blog at  When I met a horse on my recent vacation in Pennsylvania, I had to reflect how much I've learned from her, just by listening to her read out loud from her forthcoming book in our weekly writers' group.

On a recent trip across northern Pennsylvania my husband and I took a day to go down into the heart of a dramatic river gorge, Pine Creek Gorge. We would be traveling in a wagon drawn by a team of Belgian draft horses.

Now, I was never a girl who liked horses, and my adult level of interest in horses has hovered on the dial between "low attraction" and "mild anxiety." But over the last year, I've attended a weekly writers' group and heard Nicole Birkholzer  read from the early drafts of her book about working with horses. Nicole coaches people to understand horses with greater awareness, with a "mindful connection." The close relationships she talks about between people and animals sounded to me like practical magic -- hard to believe at first, but proven real again and again.

Listening to Nicole made me feel that I felt that if I had the chance to spend time with a horse, I could be open to making a "mindful connection," or at least giving it a try.

That morning in Pine Creek Gorge, I wondered whether I would have any chance to get to know the horses who would be pulling our wagon as a team. That certainly wasn't on the agenda of the tour operators, but I thought I'd keep my eyes open and be patient.

We got to the farm where our tour would start quite early, so I had a lot of time to walk around. There were a couple of vigorous-looking draft horses in one pasture. They had a barely contained adolescent energy, like teenaged football players in a locker room before a game.

Off in another enclosure I saw another horse who seemed quite different, older perhaps. He was also a Belgian draft horse, massive and reddish blond. His coat looked patchy and even scruffy, with a balding muzzle and hair that had thinned on his back. He was calmly eating hay about twenty feet from the fence. The woman who ran the place told me his name was Buddy.

I decided to try to "connect" to Buddy, since the two jocks in the farther field seemed like more than I could handle. I was prepared for Buddy to have no interest in me whatsoever. After all, he must be approached by tourists every day, and people being people, some of those visitors must be annoying. "It's just an experiment," I thought. "I'll try to practice what Nicole talks about. I'll listen to the horse, let him know what my intentions are, and see if he's open to meeting me."

I watched Buddy eating for a while and tried to sense his energy. He seemed absorbed in chewing on hay, sticking his nose deep into the bale as if the yummy stuff was way inside. After a while I began to "broadcast" my intention by thinking, "Hello, if you want me to scratch your back or anything, I'm available."

He kept eating with concentration, as if he were unaware of my presence. I continued to think, "You look like you're enjoying your food, but I'm just saying, I'm here, I could scratch you...."

Then I really did feel something bounce between me and the horse: a distinct "brush-off" feeling. It seemed like Buddy was telling me "Okay! I heard you! And I'm eating! This is what I want to do right now! Stop nudging me!"

I mentally acknowledged the message and told him I'd be around if he changed his mind. I went to sit on a bench in the sunshine fifty feet away. After ten minutes, he came right up to the fence and made eye contact with me across the open space. Oh, okay, I thought, lunch is over, now he may be taking me up on my offer.

I walked back to the fence and began to scratch his side, moving to his neck and the space between his ears as he stepped nearer. When he seemed squirmy, I moved to another spot until he settled down again, just like you would with a cat.

As I scratched and rubbed him, Buddy moved in closer and closer to me, all 2000 pounds of warm horse muscle and rough hair.  Finally his enormous nostrils were pressed right up against my face as my arms were draped along his sides scratching. Like the tip of an elephant's trunk, the edges of Buddy's nose explored my face with an elastic, moist, whiffling delicacy.

I felt entirely absorbed in this big creature. I felt I'd been given a huge gift:  this being was sharing his self with me, his weight, his smell, his breath, his gaze. It seemed like a long time we stood this way, but really, I wasn't aware of time going by. There was still a wooden fence between us, but Buddy's trust in me erased any fences in my mind.

1 comment:

  1. beautiful! I had a slightly less emotional but just as communicative interaction with a horse during some field work in Nebraska. The prof leading the fossil collecting accepted a rancher's offer of a horse ride for the students. I was asked whether I had ever ridden before and could I stay on a horse in a canter or a gallop. I said I had (which I had--a few times :-) and that I could, so I was 'assigned' a horse with the warning that he always ran for the barn at the end of a ride, that he'd be fine during the ride but to prepared whenever the group turned around to go back. So at the end of the ride when he started to run for the barn, I turned him and talked to him and patted his neck. I told the others to go ahead, and turned towards the barn and then to one side a couple more times, talking to him the whole time, explaining that we were going to walk back to the barn. It was a perfectly friendly discussion, but I was pretty determined... and then we walked back. He nuzzled me a little when I scratched his neck after we got back, so I know he wasn't mad at me either. I just felt as if we'd had some clearer two-way communication than I have with lots of people. Thanks for your story--I hadn't thought about my interaction with that horse in years. --Nancy