Conversation With a Horse, Hand to Heart

The other day, my husband and I watched the Emmy Award winning movie about the famed animal behaviorist, Temple Grandin. I was particularly touched by the horse scene, in which Temple quietly enters a stall of a dangerously right-brained horse. Without fear, she approached the troubled horse respectfully but not tentatively. As she reached out to him, the horse transformed almost instantly from a rearing, striking, wild-eyed, frightened prey animal, into a trusting being seeking empathy and harmony, responding in kind as she extended her hand for him to touch. Temple then ran her hand over his withers and slowly down his shoulder, coming to rest over his heart, gently feeling the rhythm of his heartbeat. The horse’s eyes immediately softened and his head lowered with total acceptance and understanding. Temple Grandin says she thinks in pictures; I say she speaks the language of horse.

Zachery, fitted with double bridle with curb chain, dropped noseband and running martingale.

The sequence triggered a memory of a horse, Zachery, I came to know as a teenager. When I was 14 to 15 years old, I spent many hours after school at a riding stable within walking distance of our home, just outside the Baltimore city limits. I was told Zack was an Anglo Arab, but reflecting on his nature and physical presence, I’m convinced now that he was actually an Iberian Warmblood–half Lusitano–a big boned gray, with a thick, wavy white tail and long flowing mane set on a proud, cresting neck. Bold and beautiful, Zack frequently was misunderstood by his riders. Despite being fitted with a double bridle featuring a high port bit, curb chain, dropped nose ban and running martingale, few riders were able to control the horse if he took off. No amount of pulling or see-sawing on the reins could bring him in. Only “advanced” riders were permitted to take him out; nonetheless he returned to the stable riderless on more than one occasion.

In exchange for mucking out, watering, grooming and tacking up horses, I was occasionally permitted to ride out and round up riders who had lost their way and were late returning to the barn. On one such day, the only horse left in the barn was Zack. The barn manager asked me to tack him up and take him out to the riding ring where he could determine whether I could handle the horse. At a walk, he was fine, but shortly after asking him to move into a trot, he bolted, snapping the reins out of my hands and throwing me off balance. I grabbed mane to steady myself, and gathered up the reins, which were still too long to restrain him. So, holding the loose reins and mane in my right hand, I leaned forward and slid my free hand as far down his shoulder as possible and held it steady, softly murmuring, “Whoa there big boy, whoa.” He responded beautifully, slowing to an easy lope and coming to a stop at the gate. I’m not sure who was more surprised, the stable manager or myself, but the magic of first going with the horse and then reaching out and respectfully asking the horse to come back to me stayed with me from that day forward, and has served me well many times over.

Movie clip from the 2010 HBO Home Video, Temple Grandin

Temple Grandin says she thinks in pictures. Pictures speak louder than words.
In this scene Temple Grandin speaks the language of horse.

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First Ride, First Canter…

PJ and her sister walking home from the country store.

When we were youngsters, my sister and I walked home from school, good weather permitting. We would stop by the country store to see if our mother had placed an order for us to pick up, before crossing over a large field to our house. From time to time we would come upon our neighbor, Mr. Green, driving a team of two horses pulling a plow. Occasionally, he would invite one of us to sit on the plow seat and hold the reins, and the other to sit on one of the horses and ride from one end of the field to the other as he walked along with a hand on the bridle. One day when both of us were carrying a bag of groceries, he magically appeared in his horse-drawn wagon on the road along side the field. He stopped and let us place our groceries in the back of the wagon and hop on the front seat for a ride home.

Riding home in Mr. Green's horse-drawn wagon.

When we arrived, Mother came out to greet us. After exchanging pleasantries, Mr. Green mentioned he had several Dalmation puppies for sale and would she be interested in buying the girls a pup. On hearing this, my sister and I jumped up and down, pleading, “Oh yes, Mommy, please, oh please can we go see the puppies?”

The following weekend we visited Mr. Green’s farm. Naturally, we chose the friendliest pup in the litter, squealing with delight as he ran from one set of outstretched arms to the other and lavished us with wet, gooey kisses, his eyes darting wildly back and forth between us in his excitement. We named him Barney Google with the “goo-goo-googly eyes—Barney for short. While the arrangements were being made, I slipped away and ventured down to a small paddock where earlier I had spotted a pony. I’m not sure how long I stood there by the fence stroking her neck and feeding her bits of grass through the fence boards before I heard a voice behind me say, “Hey there, would you like to go for a ride?” I was speechless but enthusiastically nodded my head.  All of a sudden Mr. Green swooped me off my feet and before I knew it I was sitting on the back of this sweet gentle pony. She stood quietly and I radiated sheer happiness, from head to toe. “What’s her name?” I asked. “Princess” he answered as he handed me her lead and told me to grab mane. Then much to my surprise, he gave her a slap on the rump and she took off, circling the paddock in the most remarkably soft rolling canter one could imagine.

PJ's first ride when she discovered the feeling of oneness with Princess.

I remember no fear, just love and pure joy. When I lost my balance and slipped to one side, she moved right under me. My eyes were full of wonder when we arrived back at the gate where Mr. Green stood smiling. He helped me off. I gave the pony a hug and she nudged me softly, seeking more grass treats. Mesmerized by her scent, her warmth and the feel of her velvety muzzle on my hands as I rewarded her with more tidbits of grass, I could have stayed with her for hours but my parents were calling that it was time to go.

Once in the car, Barney, now exhausted,  settled down and slept in my lap all the way home. My heart was full. It’s true, happiness is a warm puppy. Nonetheless, that evening all I could think about, and dream about, was Princess and my first ride and her beautiful rolling canter. I would remember that feeling of softness and oneness for the rest of my life, but would not experience it again for many years to come.

Feeling love attracts love back to you.
What you are feeling for another, you are bringing to you.

Rhonda Byrne, author of: The Secret
and The Secret: The Power

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Coming in from the cold…

Greetings Horse Lovers!

Pictured above with PJ are Josie, a good-hearted Quarter Horse mare and Bold Vanity, a savvy Crabbet Arabian gelding. Down the road, I’ll be offering ramblings about these two beautiful horses day by day, but first a prelude… a trip through my past to meet some very special horses who have enriched my life over the years and from whom I have learned many lessons along the way, the most important being, “trust is a bigger compliment than love.”

Coming soon:  My first ride.

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ABOUT THE QUEEN… My Horse, Your Horse, Our Horse of the Year

Today Zenyatta  became the 2010 Horse of the Year.  She also walked away with the Eclipse Older Female Award (for the third consecutive year) and a Special Eclipse Award in recognition of Zenyetta’s contribution to horseracing.* Not since the racing days of Seabiscuit during the ’30s Depression has a horse captured the hearts of so many people.  Here we are on the brink of another deep recession and America has once again fallen in love with a horse—this time around to an extraordinary mare that has given us the gifts of hope, love and inspiration.

With an unbeaten record of 19 wins, the Queen of Horseracing danced her way to the gates to run the 2010 Breeders Cup Classic, exhibiting her famed Zenyatta prance and exuberant as her mesmerized fans cried out, “Zenyatta, Zenyatta, Zenyatta!”  She ran with her customary flare, coming up from behind, passing all but one contestant, stride by stride, before sweeping past the grandstand of cheering fans to the finish line, neck to neck with the front runner, only to lose by a nose—her undefeated record coming to an anti-climatic end.  An audible gasp followed by a huge sigh of dismay, for a horse named Blame was to blame for Zenyatta having lost her only race out of 20 starts.

But moments later, with TV cameras rolling, Zenyatta’s obviously devastated jockey, Mike Smith, took the blame upon himself.. If I had to “blame” anybody, it would be me.”  Just one more stride, Zenyatta, one more stride.  And then in the aftermath, her trainer, John Shirreffs reassured us with his gracious comment:

“Zenyatta ran her heart out today”…[her fans] were behind her win or lose and I think she represented them really well. She ran an excellent race…We congratulate Blame and his connections. He beat a superstar.”

Blame had the good fortune of a clean start and a clear path to victory. The same cannot be said for Zenyatta. One time in history, all the variables that occur in horseracing were eliminated by matching two horses head-to-head: the legendary War Admiral and America’s then favorite racing star, Seabiscuit.  While most fans believe Zenyatta clearly ran the best race that fateful day, a few have called for a rematch; but that is not to be.

Following the Breeders Cup Classic, Blame retired to stud and Zenyatta retired a broodmare. While a match race between these two champions is not on the horizon, a match of another kind may well be at hand, with “Mr.Right” to be announced shortly.

In her blog, Horseracing Heart-2-Heart, Janie writes, “Zenyatta is not just a horse…she is the heart and soul of dreams. Zenyatta is a Queen. In my heart she is the Horse of the Century.”  We agree.


*  2010 Eclipse Awards, January 17, 2010, Miami Beach, FL

Image by Tenneyellan Production.
Click to view the Zenyatta- Her Strut photo montage on YouTube.

Publication Date:  January 17, 2011,
Released:  January 18, 2011

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