On Being Like a Child
Back a zillion years ago the “ranch” existed in my backyard. At one point we had around 30 horses behind the house, and about half that many volunteers on a daily basis. One of them was a teenager who insisted that her mom had dragged her here, screaming and crying, to control her life. Probably so, because the girl had tried to commit suicide the week before. She was so heavy into the Goth subculture that her personality was black, and that aura certainly did nothing for her ability to interact with the horses. She pouted, stompted her feet, plopped down on the picnic table and refused to communication with anyone, dead or alive.
Until she met Nichol.
Nichol is a black and white pony who has been with HfH forever. As a result of her former owner slamming her so hard that her hip shattered, then locking her in a stall to die, she hobbled around on three legs and projected both hate and fear of every two legged animal she saw. She truly hated to be touched, which is the reason many of the volunteers did a double-take when we saw the rebellious teenager grooming Nichol. We stayed away, but kept a close eye on them as she gently and carefully brushed Nichol’s mane. Nichol stood quietly, without any halter, eyes closed, absorbing whatever was happening between them.
The teenager cried, hugging Nichol’s neck. That’s when her Mom walked over to stand beside her. The teenager stood up, wrapped her arms around her Mom, and bawled like a baby. It was the turning point for that young lady’s life. A horse did what no amount of drugs or therapy could do. It was, to me, a miracle, and only reconfirmed my belief in the healing power of horses.
Let me tell you about another little girl who passed through my life a year of so later when we had moved all the horses to the ranch.
Far up in the hay pile, hidden behind a wet, mud covered horse, stood a little girl. Lead rope in hand, she led the horse across the road and into his pen. Gently, she let go of one end of the rope and coaxed the horse through the gate, running her small hand down his side as he passed her.
“You need to eat, now,” she told him. “I’ll get the other horses. You wait here.”
She was about as tall as his leg, yet her passion for the horses made her fearless. The horses lower their heads for her, walk carefully beside her and listen to her every word. Her movements are in rhythm with the horse, her breathing matches theirs, she flows from one side of them to the other without hesitation as they move with her. They are communicating in images, in soft, spoken words, in ways that perhaps only little girls and horses can understand.
Later, the big people, the adults, were gathered around the feed room. The little girl found no interest in the adult conversation. Instead, she talked with the horses as they ate, visiting each one, watching and learning their mysterious ways.
Some people pay thousands of dollars to learn how to communicate with their horse, yet they never cross the barriers. They look on the horse in awe, fascinated with the majesty, wanting so much to be a part of its world, yet never achieving the natural ability of a little girl with blond hair and muddy shoes.
“Look at her for a minute,” I told a volunteer. “Watch Sarah talk to the horses, “ I told another. “Do you see what she’s doing? Do you see how natural she is?”
Two people were taking a horsemanship class. Another was trying to lift a hoof to clean it. Another was secretly giving snacks. They’re teaching, learning, trying to do horse stuff, wondering if there is a better way to let the horses understand that they were there to help them. One horse was resisting the halter, another refused to lift his foot, and two horses were getting mouthy over the smell of candy.
And Sarah was in the hay stack, talking to the horses. Twenty mouths surround her, chomping hay, listening to her every word. If she were two feet taller, I had no doubt that she’d halter every horse we have, never seeing a turned head. If she weighed fifty pounds more, she could lift every hoof with total ease.
Perhaps that’s what we’re missing. By coming into the horse’s world with the analytical mind of an adult, we’re destroying the natural flow of expression between living things. There are those who return to the flow, like the Birdman of Alcatraz and Jane Goodall, people who become well known for their ability to communicate with animals. Perhaps it isn’t a returning, for they might have had the ability as a child and carried it into adulthood.
“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things,” the Good Book says. But wait, for Sarah sees as a child, acts as a child, and holds a horse that normally doesn’t like children. She guides and caresses and talks and the horses listen to her every words. Perhaps we don’t need to put away all our childish things. We can learn a lot from the Good Book, but we can also learn a lot from watching little girls with horses, and one of them is to remember what being a child was all about.
Habitat for Horses is always on the lookout for a few great people at our ranches. The work is unique, the animals are special and we want folks who both know and understand the special connection our animals need.