A Mind to Hear
By Betsy Kelleher
Because of Lady’s personality, I give her more freedom than I do our other three horses. I turn her loose to eat grass by the barn and I trust her to come when I call. We sometimes turn the others loose, but I have to go after them.
When it’s time for Lady to go out to her paddock, I open her stall door and she goes where she is supposed to go (most of the time). When it’s time for her to come in, I open the paddock door and she goes to her stall. When I open the paddock door for the others, I know Traveller and Rocky will go into their stalls, but Ginger would stop and snitch bites of hay if I didn’t lead her. Lady is smarter than most, and it’s great to have a horse you can trust, but she is still a horse. Like the others, she has a mind of her own. I try to be ready for those rare occasions when she decides not to stick to the program. And I talk to her a lot.
I’m not saying Lady understands my words, but I’m not saying she doesn’t! For weeks, I verbally nagged her to relieve herself before coming in from the paddock. Rocky almost always takes care of business before coming in. Traveller always waits until he’s in his stall. Lady used to, until I started pestering her! Every night, before bringing her in, I asked her to do her business outside first. One night, I noticed that she did, so I praised her lavishly! Now, it’s a habit that I appreciate greatly when I clean her stall.
Keeping her stall dry used to be impossible. Turning her out more hours in the paddock helped, but for the last two years, I’ve had to deal with her “sand colic” from eating limestone. One day I decided that her grazing outside by the barn was a beneficial alternative to her scrounging every fiber of hay from the paddock dirt. In the beginning, I put up a temporary rope fence from the edge of the paddock to the corner of the adjoining barn, making a convenient, enclosed area with grass. Lady often grazed out there for an hour.
I also tied a piece of twine across the barn doorway, because Lady came back in quite fast and unexpectedly one day when the big farm tractor went by on the road.
When I took down the twine and called her, she came. Sometimes I would clap my hands. She would immediately raise her head and come in, going right to her stall. I put Traveller inside that same rope fence one day and he walked out under it and went down the road. And he does not come back in when called.
So Lady has earned her privileges. When grass was plentiful near the barn, I dared to turn her loose a few times without the rope fence. I checked on her often and listened for any big farm tractors or trucks going by. I do not recommend this, but sometimes we do what seems to work anyway!
I know Lady enjoys going out for grass, by her actions. One morning I brought her from the paddock and let go of her halter as we passed her stall door instead of leading her all the way outside. She immediately rushed out the open doorway, leaped, bucked and kicked up her heels in obvious enjoyment of her freedom! I wondered how far she would go, but she dropped her head about ten feet from the doorway and that was it.
Gradually, she of course has taken advantage of her freedom. When the nearby grass got shorter, from frequent grazing and being mowed, she started moving further away from the barn for better stuff. One day after being turned loose, she crossed the road, eating the grass on the other side. She still came in when called.
Another day, she wandered on down the other side of the road, almost to the farmer’s gate (the road by our barn ends at the gate unless farm equipment needs to get through). Knowing the gate was closed, I let her stay there for about an hour. When it was time for Lady to come in, I clapped my hands and called her, and she came running right to her stall.
So once again, I turned her loose, and she wandered down to that same place, where I know she found a sweet patch of clover. When I clapped my hands and called her, she raised her head, gave me a look and went back to eating. I clapped again and called her a few more times. She still wasn’t coming, so I walked out toward the road thinking I’d have to go bring her in. Before I reached the road, however, her head went up and she came a running. Visualize a short stout tank of a black alpha mare running at you full speed—or maybe a combination of running and very fast gait—and that was what I saw! I yelled whoa a few times and held up my arms, but as she got closer, she turned in toward the barn, went around me, jumped the ditch and ran full speed into her stall.
Lady knows her place and I know mine. We have worked out a good relationship over the past five years with several “discussions,” but we each know what to expect. She knows she belongs to me. And she knows where her food is.
As I think back on the situation, I realize it was a gradual training process. At first, I let her eat grass in a small fenced area, knowing she came back in when called. When I turned her loose without the rope boundary, she still responded to my call. Even when she wandered further and further down the road, she came back when I clapped my hands and called her, until that last time when I had to start walking to trigger her run for her stall. For one reason or another, she hasn’t been turned loose since! Perhaps I know too well she could easily run the other way!
It’s not wise to give a horse too much freedom in most situations. I remember one day when I tied her to a tree by the road where the grass was especially thick, and the tractor came by and scared her. She ran and was caught by the end of the rope, which pulled her down. She was lucky (I was lucky) she didn’t get hurt seriously, but she did get a massage therapy session out of it!
Remember how our parents gave us a little more freedom and a little more responsibility, as we proved worthy of their trust? I think God is like that. In wisdom and love, even though He truly “owns” us, He gives us freedom to choose our own path in life. He is also aware of our human nature and its weakness. He provides opportunities for us to prove our loyalty and stewardship. As we prove faithful, He provides further opportunities and responsibilities (I Corinthians 4:2).
Sometimes we take advantage of our freedom. We stray a little further from His ways and we don’t respond immediately as He calls us back. We are distracted by what we want and we ignore His voice. Our actions may have painful consequences, and God does not usually remove the consequences. But He still loves us and if we run to Him, confessing our selfish tendencies, He will work with us to restore the relationship. No matter how far we have strayed, we can always go running back to His mercy and forgiveness. Like the father of the prodigal son, He waits with open arms of reconciliation.
And as He tells us in Revelation 3:20, “Here I am! I stand at (your) door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.” That feast of fellowship with God is the greatest Thanksgiving ever!
As we celebrate with our families this November, let us be aware of God’s call to us individually. As we reap a good harvest, show our appreciation of God’s provision and protection for another year, and count our many blessings, let us also remember those for whom life doesn’t feel very good right now because of the economy, the loss of a job, the loss of a loved one, or because of problems that seem too difficult to handle. Those who have should look for ways to help those who don’t have.
(Originally published in the November 2009 issue of the Illinois Horse Network)