Free to be, Phinneas and me


Introducing Nature to an Unnatural World - Difficult, but Not Impossible

By Alene Sibley

Tonight my horse Phinneas is outside, unstalled - free, sort-of, if you don't count the fence. As he wanders the star-lit corral with his best friend Max - each other's total herd - he will be blessedly unaware of the protracted deliberations leading to tonight's open-air arrangement. To them they're horses, they're outside: it's all so normal - no reading required. They have been granted the gift of ignorance to all the literature, education, talk and analysis that go into every horse-keeping detail in which their domesticated world is steeped. And this doesn't count the hard-feelings and arguments that can arise when viewpoints differ dramatically, often seen in the clash of "natural" versus time-honored "traditional." Surrounded by convention, it can be difficult for the more alternative-style horse owner to stand firm for their ideals. Difficult, but not impossible.

We people enjoy a fair amount of choice, but in shared environments, like barns, we must also live by rules. Generally, though, democratic people can't conceive of living voiceless under strict governing regulations. Imagine, for instance, that one night you are prevented from using your bed, and from now on you must sleep in a chair. You would learn to fall asleep there, but would it ever feel quite right? Now imagine that each day you must go to your chair at 5 in the afternoon and remain there until 8 the next morning. How would that feel? Being human, you might catch eight hours of blissful sleep to relieve the boredom of the chair. Now consider the horse who dozes between 2 and 4 hours total in a 24-hour day, more if some serious shut-eye is needed. Thousands of these social, busy animals, whose optimal physical and mental health is derived in large part from movement, endure the governed regulation of four confining walls every day. They manage it voiceless, and they manage it without the escape of sleep.

Anyone will tell you that horses are adaptable, and it's true. They adapt and they don't complain. They might crib, weave, paw, eat their bedding and blankets, but those are vices, not complaints. Note the irony here of "vice," a word which implies intellectual choice. Often the language surrounding our horses is indicative of a strong defensive psychology at work, like the rhetoric of a politician needing to believe and be believed:

"This horse is a rogue, that one can't ever come off heart-bars, this guy prefers to be in a paddock alone, this other one here just loves to jump, that one's an incurable cribber, and they all need to be fed at exactly 4:30 because if it's one minute late we'll have ten colics on our hands..."

Don't underestimate the value of helping a horse to experience as much of his true nature as is possible - his contentment will be your reward and your thanks.

By telling it "the way it is," the teller effectively prevents other perspectives from being heard. Standing behind a wall of authority can feel more secure than tackling uncomfortable, shake-the-boat ideas. Professional knowledge is an indispensable commodity in the equine field - we really can't get anywhere without the science behind the training, tack, nutrition and healthcare, etc. It is when that knowledge becomes closed-minded and resistant to shared dialogue that everyone loses: the farrier who scoffs at barefooting, the vet who discounts the homeopathic cure, the trainer who forgoes a more humane method in exchange for speedier results; AND, too, the naturalist who feels that their way is the only way.

So how can you make the best choices for yourself and your horse within this institution of opposing positions, opinions and, well, choices? If you have convictions about how to keep your horse that challenge the rules where you board or the professional that you utilize, how do you change a system that may not agree with you?

Anyone asking these questions, which arise from a place of care and concern, should be encouraged to strongly advocate for the thing about which they care and are concerned. Advocating rarely means arguing, long-term solutions can be won without a fight, and hopeless communications often contain the seeds for understanding. To change a system, you don't; you change you. Following are a few ingredients for creating more healthy conditions in the life you share with your horse:

(I) EMPATHY: This has a way of melting walls. The best first step in any crusade is to empathize, to place yourself into the minds and feelings of others. Since horses cannot use words, their caretakers must listen to the voice of their own conscience and intuition so as to more clearly understand the inner voice of the horse. It's a learning process, so practice, practice, practice. At the same time practice empathy toward others, as in the barn owner or trainer of contention - this is not always easy when they disagree with you, but is necessary to effect lasting change. Nobody means to be in your way, and most everyone believes they are operating from high values, so discard those ugly thoughts which impede progress!

(2) CLARITY: Your key to credibility, and your best offensive strategy. A wishy-washy advocate is downright ineffectual, so it's to your advantage to do a bit of research when you have a plan in mind. Preparing to transition your horse from shod to barefoot? Know your trimmer and something about how and why they trim! Working with a trainer? Understand what attracts you to this training, what is offered, and the benefits you hope to see. A change in feed? Familiarize yourself with the basics about your choice of feeding programs. Be as clear as Buddha in your beliefs.

(3) OPTIMISM: The fuel to move forward! Any Eeyore attitudes need to be booted out the door, and now. Being optimistic is a form of faith. It also means that when you hear "NO," you might see room for flexibility. "No" does not always mean no. If you meet resistance to your ideas, relax; blink, think, and ask peacefully: "Well, why not?" If you are told that something just doesn't fit within, say, barn policy, decide whether it's important enough to either help the barn find a way around it's own policies, or to help you find a new barn. A non-threatening approach for your idea(s) is to ask if you can try it for a while - what could have been an unfriendly, stipulated requirement is instead a friendly, humble possibility. Remember that you are not trying to change established policies or belief systems, you are simply looking to work within the system and still get what you want; in the end larger change may come about through example. As my barefoot trimmer Lisa says: "I'm changing the world, one horse at a time."

Max and Phinneas generally find that picnics taste best when shared, especially if the picnic is on ground-level and available all day and night.

Phinneas has seen his share of moves, each new barn being individual in style and rules. Despite the rules, I have convinced traditional stables to allow for my natural grains with immune-boosting vitamins and non-chemical de-wormer from TLC Animal Nutrition, things that have saved my horse and that I will never give up. Being told: "No - we feed this way," I proposed various methods that I could try (I was persistent but polite), and they ended up tolerating my homemade daily feed packets so that Phinneas's regimen could fit in without too much difficulty. I always perform regular fecal tests; one, it's good management and two, it's a proactive gesture toward keeping my non-conventional deworming routine. My horse has enjoyed in-and-outs and stablemates where no other horses were permitted such "luxuries," he has been the blanket-free fuzzy nudist amidst a stable-full of his draped friends, I have braved frowns by gaining permission to avoid vaccinating, and recently, creating a few more frowns, we have begun the transition from shod to barefoot. Most remarkable is that these decisions, though conscientiously implemented, can be seen by some as radical and bordering on dangerous. I see them more as a means of unearthing the horse beneath the humanizing and convenience-izing. Granted, the horse is living in my world, so I can probably meet him only about halfway. But I try.

So, first night at the new barn. We are the sole boarders and care-providers and I assumed it was no problem to leave the stall doors open into the large paddock. My assumption was met with an unmistakable, unarguable NO: "No way," said the barn's owner, Jane. "Absolutely not, no overnight turnout." She was worried for the horses.

This area is populated by coyotes and all the hysteria that can surround them. Rabies has also entered our environment; add to the mix human fear, and we've got a problem for the outdoor horse. I immediately forgot any ideas of peace and empathy. "Why not?" I asked, panicked.

"Coyotes! Loose dogs! That's why." To her the dangers were real, case almost closed.

"Um... he's a horse," I said feebly, my thinking being that the lone coyote weighs 25 pounds and my horse weighs 1300, and frankly if the coyote could bring him down, well, by gum, he deserved him. But I was sorely unprepared for battle. 'No' meant no this time, for a while. I would stay up until midnight to let them in, and Max's owner Chris would get to the barn early to free them. Phinneas and Max are happy creatures who like to play, and bedtime seemed a cruel interruption to their rhythm - let alone that I believe it's unhealthy. I began gathering and sharing information, in little doses.

There are horses I know of living in the mid-west in winter with no blankets and no shelter but a lean-to. "The temperature goes down to 30 below at night," I explained to Jane, "and they just stay out there." Her eyes grew wide, this woman who has been working with horses for 50 years. "How the heck?" she said. "And then she threw up her hands. "Aren't they amazing!" she exclaimed, "they adapt!"

Biting one's tongue can play an important role in not alienating people, thus Jane never heard me respond: "I think that it's the outdoor animal in the indoor stall, wearing two blankets, eating the bucket of grain and finishing up the hay 8 hours before breakfast, who is the one doing the adapting." Every little detail need not be argued when building a case

I consulted with veterinarians (no, we've never known of a coyote attacking a horse), coyote experts (good luck to the coyote that tries), wildlife organizations (rabies isn't a nighttime problem, it's all day long. Have low mesh fencing if you're worried.)

The happy ending is that tonight there are two more horses outside in the world, with low mesh fencing, relatively safe and sound and one step closer to their natural state. A good barn situation has been made better, and Jane is now accepting of the idea. Soon Jane's mare is coming to live at the barn, and there's the distinct possibility that this mare will end up sleeping outside. And that makes three...


About the author:

Alene Sibley lives in New England. She works in body therapy for people and their animals, and as an intuitive counselor. A freelance writer, she has been published in several magazines including EQUUS, and self-published her book The Treatment for Horses in 2002.