Sharon Wilsie, founder of Horse Speak™ and author of the books Horse Speak: An Equine-Human Translation Guide (with Gretchen Vogel) and Horses in Translation, provides a guest post this week. Her books are available from the TSB online bookstore (click HERE) and watch for her new DVD, coming in November 2018.
I like coffee. Strong coffee. The kind of coffee that sends an aroma out, wafting through the house and creeping under the bedroom door around 6:00 a.m. when the automatic coffee maker has brewed the liquid gold. More often than not, the urge to get just “one more minute” is corralled by the opposite urge to get my first cup of that delicious stuff.
I am one of those “animal people” who finds themselves living amidst a slew of furry friends. Slumping toward the kitchen, I have to be careful to step around a sleeping dog and not to trip over the purring kitty convinced that the best thing to go with coffee is a can of cat food.
It’s late summer here in Vermont, and from our patio I can still enjoy the early morning sunrise through the deep mists of the forest surrounding our home. There are mountains to the south and a “good hill” to the north, where we can currently spy ducks and geese practicing their flight patterns.
The horses shift and snort down below in the little valley they call home. They live in total turnout, with run-in shelters to go into when the sun is high or the bugs are too intense. We have one intrepid escape artist, so the herd has to be locked behind a gate at night where the shelters are. But the “old man” is left loose, and he usually saunters up to enjoy my morning coffee with me.
Zeke stares at me now, as though he would like to fill me in on all the goings-on that took place during his night watch. Seems a raccoon got into the garbage bin again. Zeke let’s me know by staring toward the mess, which I had not noticed yet. I lift my cup to him, and nod my head, certain he chased the varmint away. He nods his head and lets out a prolonged snort. Zeke likes things to stay tidy around here. I have seen him pin his ears at a moose when it had the audacity to wander into the back acres.
The newest member of our family, a one-year-old lab mix named Willow, has been digging, bouncing, and sniffing around, and now sneaks up toward Zeke’s nose. He sniffs her, too, then for good measure pins his ears and looks away. She takes this as a signal to run at top speed around and around him for a few minutes while he stands still, looking very annoyed—but I suspect he secretly enjoys it, because they do this every day. She loves to go trail riding with us, and even though due to his advanced age Zeke is restricted to a 20-minute walk down a very level trail, he seems to prefer it if she comes along.
Because of his senior status, I had chosen not to ride him this summer, but he got steadily depressed. One day, when I was tacking up another horse in the riding ring, he sauntered up to the saddle, which was placed on the split-rail fence, and stood alongside it, perfectly still. I smiled at him but went ahead with riding the other horse. When we were done, he lay down in front of the riding ring gate. Immediately, I assumed he was sick and went to him. Upon standing up, he walked over to the saddle again, and put his nose on it.
Well! What was I to do?
I put the other horse away, and saddled Zeke. He marched me over to the trail head and insisted on trotting every chance he got.
Since then, I take him out once or twice a week. He has even opted to go up the dirt road near our home a few times. I try not to ride him more than 20 minutes at a time, but it is always my choice to dismount, he seems to be perfectly happy to keep going.
Our property has different levels of fencing on it for various turnout, but Zeke has the run of it most days. Sometimes in the early morning, he will walk up to the bedroom window and get the dog barking. When we look out the window and see his enquiring nose, we know he wants something, and its time to get up. This was the case one morning when the trash men came a little earlier than usual. Our driveway is more like a short road, and Zeke came to our window to wake us, then stood in the yard, facing the sound of the oncoming trash truck. We jumped up just in time to get the barrels up the driveway, and he even sauntered halfway up the lane to watch us transport the barrels out of the back of our pickup truck and into the garbagemen’s hands. We thanked Zeke for the wake-up call and scratched his belly—his favorite spot. Then he received his morning rations of soaked senior grain and hay stretcher, right next to the back patio where we typically have our morning coffee and enjoy the first light of the day.
I have known of many people who have a senior “lawn horse.” Zeke’s records are lost, so we don’t know exactly how old he is—but there are many years under his belt. I feel that his long career as a circus vaulting horse, a carriage horse, and a therapeutic riding horse have earned him the right to live a life of liberty and the pursuit of his own happiness. Each time I invite him to go riding, it starts with simply placing the saddle on the rails. If he wants to go, he walks over and puts his nose on it. If he is not in the mood, he doesn’t.
Zeke has had a series of mouth tumors over the past two years. He has lost two teeth and regularly deals with having the vet remove the bulk of a tumor when it interferes with his chewing. However, he barely even needs sedation for any of this and appears grateful to receive the aid. He suffered a serious hind-end injury somewhere in his past, because he has scars up and down his hind legs, and his rear ankles are quite enlarged. Despite this, he loves his life. He loves Dakota, the half-blind mare he lives with when we put him in a paddock when we need to leave the house. He whinnies and even canters around if I take her out for a ride. When Zeke first came here, he was in a lot of pain, and had become a serious biter. He was going to be put down, and I offered to adopt him instead. Dakota claimed him and became his “alpha mare” in about two minutes, and they have been together ever since. She even taught me how to work with and around him safely.
Even though I am the author of two books, Horse Speak (with Gretchen Vogel) and Horses in Translation, I am still learning the intricateness of the language of equines. Having an elder wiseman such as Zeke gives me much to think about. He challenges me to communicate directly with him (like drawing my attention to the garbagemen, or the raccoon), and he makes me dig deeper to find connection with a horse that many people would have written off.
I like to ride my horses, but I love to sit and learn from them even more. Each time I am around them doing chores, brushing them, or just sitting with them as they graze, I seek to allow myself to go into what I call “Zero”—the inner state of stillness. From there, I can watch and observe their communications. There is a rhythm to Horse Speak; it’s like a timeless dance, moving to the music of “crunch-munch-munch” as the horses swish at a fly or chew their food. Step, chew, swish, step—lift the head, lower the head—chew, step swish. I am reminded of bees doing their “flower dance” and communicating to the rest of the hive where the best pollen is. Or fish, moving in tandem under the dock at Woods Hole, Cape Cod, at my friend’s house. Sitting on the dock, witnessing the movements of cormorants diving or seals swimming out of the harbor, I am reminded that life does this natural thing, this rhythm of movement, sound, feel, and breath. The waves crash into shore, the waves recede out.
Horse Speak is a gift. It is as old as the hills and as new as the message today from Zeke, saying, “Hey, don’t just sit there, come with me into the woods…. Sit on my back and feel my rhythm.”
And I will.
CLICK HERE for more information.
Trafalgar Square Books, the leading publisher of equestrian books and DVDs, is a small business based on a farm in rural Vermont.