I was giving Shaman Tal a rub down before he left for the far pasture to graze. I noticed his body fragrance. I told him he smelled like a flower, like perfume in a horsey sort of way. Maybe he’d been using an aftershave, I teased. I pressed my nose into his coat and took a long breath and began thinking about what smells tell us, and how they make us feel. Sometimes when one of my horses is not feeling his best, I detect a metallic odor, or sometimes sour. Most often though, it is delicious and pure.
In the book, “What Horses Say,” by Julie Dicker, it is mentioned that different breeds and even different colored coats smell differently. Tal is black and white and sure enough his black coat has a different smell than his white. Apparently sometimes other horses don’t like the smell of a particular horse. And it makes me wonder about those highly fragrant fly repellents we humans insist on using. I learned early on that some of my more expressive horses didn’t like the fragrance. They would run away when I started to apply it, until I finally found one with a more natural fragrance.
My favorite smell on the ranch is the seasoned horsey smell mixed with crushed apple breath. I inhale deeply and hold, savoring the feeling it evokes. I’m transported through time to memories and places like old homestead ranches and abandoned apple orchards where the nature spirits run freely. It taps that familiar home feeling that was interwoven through my childhood years and is now a tie to my past. It makes me want to ride the top of a wave until the sun sets in the western sky.
For the past few years I have had a love-hate relationship with the domestic geese at the ranch where my horses are pastured. On the one hand they are storybook creatures and I find much humor in their way of strutting around chests out, and heads held high with beaks lifted in arrogance. In my mind’s eye, I see them wearing reading glasses and peering at me over the top as if they were my superior. And maybe I am not enlightened enough to see that is true. No matter, I do not find humor in their eating the horses’ supplement (though chickens are even worse). If there were only one or two it might not be an issue, but a flock of 17 or so can devour all the spills which for one horse represents half of the supplement that started in his bucket! I see wasted $ signs in my mind, and even worse, deprived nutrition for my horse. Because of this, I have moved into an antagonistic relationship with the geese always shooing them away and then, even further away (they are very easy to herd and fun if one has the time). I cringe as I admit that I’ve been known to send them away with water from a hose. I know they are water birds, but rain, or perhaps I should call it manufactured rain from my hose is not their forte’. It makes me feel very guilty, and I have become their enemy. That is not how I work with my horses nor is it how I want to work with other beings. I tug-o-war with myself about my predicament.
A year ago when the geese were gathered for a community meeting in the common area near the horse arena (which they often do), I stood big and tall in front of them feeling very self important as the standing-room-only flock of geese all focused on me in total silence. At that time there were more than 17, so 50 something eyes were all looking at me as an interesting curiosity. I told them I did not understand their language as I do the horses,’ but I would like to appeal to them to stop eating the horses’ supplement because it belongs to the horses (and me), for gosh sake, and the horses obviously needed it more than the winged creatures in our midst. There was no applause nor “amens”…nor “boos” for that matter; only silence which is not always the case with geese who can be obnoxiously loud when they all talk at once. After my speech, I naively had high hopes, but nothing changed except for a little more temporary tolerance on my part perhaps demonstrating to them that I am truly a good person. As time went by, I gave up on being that good person and gave up my desire to work together. I turned into a bully fulfilling my role as enemy of all winged beings, and guardian of my horses’ feed bowls and my pocket book. There was no love for these arrogant beasts. Except for their eggs. I love them!
Before I tell you what happened next, first a little background. A few years ago, I embarked on a love journey with with one horse in particular, Amoura, the most unlikely candidate for this role in my opinion, but that is for another story. She is definitely not a warm, fuzzy horse, and speaks her mind quickly and succinctly embellished only by pinned ears or a threatening kick or bite, and will deliver if necessary! But hold the judgments of her loosely; she is an amazing horse and an amazing teacher.
She is giving me new definitions of love beyond the familiar to which we humans are tethered, and so I have been soaking in new experiences of love these days and less guarded about feeling and expressing it all. Whatever inhibitions that had been there are gone, and it is refreshing and free flowing like a powerful dance between two world class dancers. Amoura whispers, “That is love.” Standing at ocean’s edge and experiencing the delicate and pearly blue of water and sky, along with tranquil waves, I breathe it in deeply. Amoura whispers, “This is love.”
That brings us back to the story. Three geese had been hanging out in my work area in the barn at night, and sneaking some horse supplement from time to time. I would repeatedly shoo them away. One night, they were standing near a horse that was eating and spilling his soft food on the floor mat. I was preparing to scold them when I realized that they were further away then I’d thought and were more engrossed in something other than the feed. They seemed at that moment, so sweetly innocent and vulnerable. In relief, my heart welled up with loving appreciation and I said with spontaneity and pleasure, “I love you!” to these three geese. Well! That set off a chain reaction. A few minutes later the whole flock of geese appeared in the middle of the corral wanting to meet this human that had said, “I love you.” They huddled together so closely to each other, I wanted to wrap my arms around the whole flock at once. Instead, I only stood there and felt it. Not one of them attempted to eat the horses’ feed. Not one. My heart got even bigger as love seeped into all the nooks and crannies.
By then all the horses were eating, and I was free for a little while. This whole love experience was becoming quite mystical. I saw myself, even at 76, as a young maiden carefree and lovely dancing in the meadows. Singing seemed appropriate. Making up what I thought was my own language and melody, I sang. They listened. All 17 geese and the horses stayed peaceful and quiet while the lyrical songs came in high soprano. We were transported into the home place where there is all beauty and unity. The place of love. The only movement was one goose who saw the cat at my feet as a threat and moved up close and sent him away. Perhaps the young feline was not entering into the love fest.
That night they brought me a story. As the flock of magical geese stood nearby, I was massaging one horse’s tail and had my forehead pressed into the cushiony part of his butt. The two of us zoned out, and the story I am writing was born.
I thought this gathering was the grande finale of the evening, but the rest was to come. After all cleaning up was done and I started saying goodbye to the horses, they drew their heads close to each other as they dropped into slumber. The geese took the cue and moved as close as they could get to both horses and me. Some even bravely wandered under the horses’ drooping heads. It seemed they couldn’t get close enough like squiggling and cuddling under the covers with someone you love. We snuggled together in silence under the starry night. The horses, geese, and me. I went home a little later wondering if this all really had happened. Amoura’s whisper came again, “That was love.”
The next night the flock was not there, but the goose who nests near my work area had left me an egg. Usually I have to sneak it which adds to my guilt, but this time, she got up from her nest immediately when I walked in and then gestured to the egg, “For you.” She was the only goose there to greet me along with her two cohorts, a male and a nanny I surmise. I wondered if the night before had been a one night’s stand since the larger flock was nowhere around.
Moments later they all came waddling into the center of the corral again. Some were a little feisty and threatening with their offensive hissing, but I said as if a little horrified, “Oh no, what about this love thing we’ve got going?” They quieted. Truly. I did a double take in surprise. The flock pressed close to each other and gradually moved within 3 feet of where I was standing where they became one big lump of geese.
They stayed bunched together, and again not one ate the horses’ supplement. I noticed, though, that if I were irritated with a horse for some reason, or raised my voice even in the slightest, the whole flock disappeared in an instant, and then returned shortly after. This night when they returned, they brought me a song. I sang it for them. It was filled with bewitching and dissonant intervals, somewhat like a jazz vocalist might sing but even more enchanting. Like automatic writing, my voice moved from interval to interval without interference from my mind. In the end, the song had been sung; all of us in the barnyard had absorbed it, and there was peace. There will be no repeats. It is gone from memory into worlds beyond, making room for another.
That “another” one came a few nights later when only three geese showed up for the magical meeting. They were waiting for me to sing their new song. It was short but with the same gratifying and softly dissonant intervals. While singing to the geese, I was standing near one horse who nudged me affectionately when I started their song, and then he dropped his head and licked and chewed as he drifted back to sleep….divine contentment. We all felt it. The horses, geese, and me. And the whisper came to my heart, “This is love.”
If interested in animal symbolism for the goose, see the following: Excerpt from “Animal-Speak, The Spiritual and Magical Powers of Creatures Great and Small” by Ted Andrews: Goose: Keynote – The Call of the Quest and Travels to Legendary Places “…Most people have heard of the legendary Mother Goose whose stories and rhymes were designed to quiet children. Myths, fairy tales, and other stories capture the imagination of children and adults alike. The goose is thus a totem reflecting a stimulation of the childhood thrill and belief in stories and legendary places. The story(s) we most loved in childhood often reflect the life quest we have come to take upon us in this lifetime. That is why it resonated with us so strongly. Going back and rereading the one or two stories you most loved will often help you to see the patterns in your life. …”
When I arrived last night, I could see 3 horses on the hill, and 2 in the flat marshy area. Immediately, those in the upper pasture disappeared behind trees on their way down the hill to join the others as they headed for the barn! I stood watching them with some nervous anticipation, still learning to trust. What would I find? Dollar’s weight, Mariah’s weight, Kaheka’s weight, Amoura’s weight and lameness issues, and Shaman’s hooves.
Here is what I experienced. Shaman with hoof issues over the years, was happily prancing around as the herd edged closer to me across the marshy pasture. He was expressing a happy enthusiasm as the herd merged together. Amoura with a lameness challenge, from afar looked like a photo I had of her in midair that had come to life. She was dancing across the pasture with her head turned toward the barn and a huge smile on her face, her countenance sparkling with anticipation of all of us being together again as the movement headed homeward.
What a bright homecoming for all of us. Shaman so comfortable in his feet, Amoura with decent weight and comfortable in her body. Kaheka’s weight was in the middle, a little on the thin side which tends to be his thoroughbred status quo. Dollar and Mariah are both too thin, and we will fix that, but our inner connection was deep.
Shaman all the while back at the barn was extremely affectionate. He was thanking me for posting the stories. In years gone by, Shaman’s hooves would heal when I posted the horses’ stories for the public. It was amazing! I am their advocate; it is their stories I tell.
Today he is thanking me for preventing his discomfort this time around by my new commitment to living our lives together in a way that I have postponed for the last 10 years, hanging out with them, writing and sharing their stories, and moving forward with new life as in the Mary Oliver poem. We are becoming home.
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!
each voice cried
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left the voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.
-by Mary Oliver
There was still a little light left in the sky when feeding and clean up were done, unusual for my time schedule. I had spent the day with the horses for hoof trims, untangling Kaheka’s mane, grooming and de-ticking the 5, and wanted to have some conversation and quiet time with them before going home. I called it a conference. Some were already standing in the community “hall,” but one was missing. Amoura. Not surprising for this stand-offish mare.
After turning the water off at the faucet, and locking up the pasture gate, I headed for the horses in the barn. As I walked past Amoura, I sent her a casual invitation in my mind to join us. In concert with my thought, she nickered. I responded, “Ah ho! That was fun!”
By the time I arrived at the stall with the horses that were waiting for me, Amoura had already arrived to complete the count at 5 horses! She came! Nice! I was surprised!
Here I was in the presence of the wisdom of all 5 horses. I could feel it. I bared my soul with them as I downloaded some perplexing and unresolved issues. Better than paying a therapist! I also talked about their teeth since they are an eldering herd, and mentioned my secret wish for a miracle! Why not?!!
While I was talking, Mariah started opening her mouth wide and contorting her jaw in different directions while stretching her head up, down, and to the side. Definitely a distraction at this serious moment! At first, I just assumed she was zoned out with some issue in her mouth. A few minutes later I realized I had been talking about their teeth, and Mariah started doing her theatrics with her mouth.
It took me back to being a teacher in the classroom when a wise cracking student would do something funny during a serious lesson to make everyone laugh. Mariah is our equine comedienne, and there was significant comedy in what she was doing but her confirming action of the topic infused with her humor passed me by until later. Slow to get it sometimes, but when I do, laughter rolls out from deep inside.
Mariah reminds me of a teenage dancer. She is in command of her body and is given to being impulsive. Sometimes she responds to some irresistible urge to move quickly away from a pile of hay with food still hanging out of her mouth as she heads for the herd like a vivacious teenager out the door to meet her friends still chewing the remainder of a peanut butter and jam sandwich. Both are onto the social business at hand!
True to her whimsical nature, Mariah threw hay one time on a 4 year old child causing him and the rest of us to laugh heartily as the hay slowly dripped off his beaming face. Another time, she sauntered up to me when I was doing a charcoal sketch of Shaman and acted interested in what I was doing. I was intrigued. Suddenly she proceeded to erase the sketch away with her very nimble muzzle. We laughed and Shaman got better.
I nicknamed her flower child because of the time I was sketching her, and she dropped a mouthful of green grass on the sketch, then threw her head as in “mission accomplished” and walked away. On closer look she had left me a miniature bouquet of flowering grasses!
Thanks to Amoura and Mariah for contributing to these sprinklings of magic and whimsy which are sometimes too easy to slip by us. When I catch it, I love the surprise along with the surge of joy these moments evoke. Lingering in it sets the stage for more to come!
[Since horses can’t text, they communicate with us in their own language. Besides messaging us with their body language; they, as sentient beings, also speak to us in many other ways. The true story below with my own herd on the Mendocino Coast shares the sweetness of everyday interactions rich with opportunity for personal growth.]
The horses were munching new Spring grasses on a hill a long way from the barn when I arrived. Shaman is easy to see because he is a paint with a white coat. To see the others, I squinted my eyes to determine whether I was seeing a horse or a bush in the distance, counting to make sure all 5 were together and safe. All was well. I had been gone for a few days to recover from the unending back to back storm systems we’d been having in California. Seeing the horses quietly grazing in the distance soothed me with peacefulness.
Donning my new well-insulated coat that had recently been given to me and my new Christmas boots (that leaked!), I set out on a long hike through the swampy lower pasture to join the horses. When I finally arrived up the hill where the grasses were thick and plentiful, the mood was tranquil as the horses continued to eat. I stood motionless feeling the quiet of a library setting where we whisper and almost feel the need to tip toe. I didn’t make a sound for fear of breaking the spell as my eyes caressed each horse, enjoying the lines of their beautiful bodies, noting how good they looked. At last one by one, they silently walked over to me, stretched out their necks, and reached their heads toward me for interaction and kisses, then retreated back to the grasses.
These moments were reassuring. I had worried during my absence. Even though the horses had been under the watchful eyes of both the ranch owner and the caretaker, I had worried. Even though the herd had sent me imageries that they were okay, I had worried.
One image they painted for me was of the 5 of them, heads together grinning from ear to ear, holding signs and waving banners of celebration. At first puzzled, I quickly realized they were applauding me as their spokesperson for finally posting their stories on our blog, a serious assignment given to me years ago as their advocate. During my recuperating time away I was in fact posting their stories. They were happy. It helped me chuckle and relax. For awhile.
Soon after, another picture came that was more literal and less comic. They were all standing in their favorite grove of trees with heads drooped in that goofy way, and all were sound asleep, meaning tummies were full, and it was time to rest. They were content.
During my time away I was learning a lesson in trust taught by the horses with their pictorial tutorials! Now that we were all together again, my somewhat crusty attempt at trust had been validated. None of them panted in my ear, “Where the hell ya been?” Nor had they come gushing over me like I was the wayward one that at last had returned, rolling their eyes behind my back! Perhaps they hadn’t really noticed I’d been gone. They were happily entranced in their own world. I’m thinkin’ a break from the human element was a good thing!
But, there was one more concern
Over the years, Shaman Tal, the “paint” horse that’s so visible in the distance, has been prone to hoof issues. In the past he has given me signs when his hooves are becoming uncomfortable. One of signs among others is isolating, staying away from the herd.
On this particular day, Shaman Tal was not isolating. He was in the center of the herd and had come a long distance to this spot in the pasture, and the few steps he had just taken in my presence were smooth and without trepidation. His countenance exuded contentment, but I wanted to be sure. This, by the way, drives my horses a little crazy. They do not want me to continue looking for something wrong after I have been reassured everything is okay! Time and time again they emphatically walk away from me, a blundering human in training.
Lately, I’ve been re-learning a lesson I had been taught by Shaman years ago. That is to expect the best which actually helps create it; and to trust more deeply my inner messages. But….but…today was different. Well. No it wasn’t. I had already noticed Shaman was okay. Why did I habitually need to prove that maybe my observations were wrong by checking again and again?! Wow. I took a deep breath and walked away choosing to trust instead of insisting he lift his hooves for me to prove or disprove what I already knew to be true in my heart.
As I started back toward the barn, the words came as a reminder, “He will show you if he is not okay,” meaning, of course, I didn’t have to keep looking for it. That resonated with my spirit, and with my experience. I relaxed and was free to enjoy the herd as we walked together back to the barn. I did a quick glance over my shoulder at Shaman to see if he were coming, and simultaneously he took steps showing me again a beautiful stride. Oh ho! Yes! I turned back and kept walking with a better stride myself, and whispered a “thank you” that I had actually been given another confirmation, unsolicited I might add, that he was okay. But there was more.
Half way back to the barn as we were moseying along together, Shaman Tal, this very horse I had been concerned about, suddenly, in a spurt of racehorse energy, took off running across the pasture flinging his head up and about and then dipping it into a figure eight. Running! What can I say?! The joy of it all! This is not the horse I would have expected to take off like that! How much clearer could it be that his hooves were in fact okay. He had gone out of his way to show me! I could only whisper “thank you” again, as my heart joined him in the frolic all the way back to the barn.
A new trust was born.
[As of the writing of this experience, I had not idea that this was only the tip of the iceberg. The horses had plans for teaching me more about trust than I could have imagined at the time. Some day that will be another story. They are digging deeper and I’m still in process!]
Trust, the most intimate thing in life, is the hardest to gain, and the hardest to hold. – John Holt