Love is the Answer!
By Betsy Kelleher
We’ve owned “Lady” for 3 years now. You probably know the story: my husband bought her at the Illinois Horse Fair. It was love at first sight, no questions asked (while I stood stunned beyond belief).
Walker’s Velvet Queen lives up to her name. She is a black Tennessee Walker, an alpha mare, a bit headstrong and a very fast thinker. Russ soon decided he didn’t want to deal with her strong minded ways. I tried to “fix” her so he could ride her as planned, and when I couldn’t, we traded her off for a nice little gaited gelding. Two weeks later, we drove all the way back to Kentucky and traded back. We had decided to keep her, for me, and get something else for him with a better attitude.
If I try to explain the recent change in this mare, my readers will probably laugh in unbelief. Briefly, I was having a massage therapist work on Lady last September, hoping for some miracle to calm her down. During the massage, I was telling the story about trading her off and getting her back, and all the while Lady was nudging me with her nose, and watching me intently, and nudging again. I guess I was pretty much ignoring her. Suddenly, she grabbed my heavy jacket at the shoulder in a fast nip! Very shocked, I was glad for the heavily padded jacket. My friend, the therapist, also very surprised, said, “I think she is trying to get your attention!”
Lady definitely had my attention at that point. I scolded her soundly, but thought carefully about the situation until I believed I had the answer. We had been talking about selling Rocky, and maybe selling Lady, too. I’m beginning to think these horses understand more than we realize. Laugh if you will, but I started talking to Lady like I would a person, and I explained to her that I did not intend to sell her, in spite of any talk. She was my horse, and I was her owner, and that was it. I may have made that decision at the very moment I was telling her, and I can’t rule out the possibility that her actions had some influence on me! But having said it, I guess I need to keep my word. Even to a horse.
That afternoon, after the massage, I rode her in the outdoor arena and out into the big empty pasture. It was a grand ride! She was calm and obedient, and she gave me a smooth consistent gait. You might think it was just the result of a relaxing massage. But I have ridden her 10 times in the last five months, and every ride has been a joy. She is more responsive to lighter cues, without over responding as much as before. She consistently seems more relaxed and more focused. I am enjoying her more and becoming more adventurous in our training goals. Of course we have been working in an arena and have yet to test this on the road with traffic. I have too much caution and the wisdom of older age to just go out and do it! I guarantee I will only venture out a short distance at a time until I feel comfortable with going further.
At first, I wondered if this change in Lady might be the result of a certain supplement containing copper (someone told me that mares need copper, and since I was giving her a hoof supplement, I changed to one that contains copper). But then I checked my records and found that she had been on this supplement long before the September massage. No, the change in Lady started in September.
I have decided that Lady’s new serenity is definitely a response to feeling she truly belongs to me, a feeling of being loved, if you will. She has always been an unusually affectionate mare (she literally demands attention!). Perhaps she was uncertain about her own security. At nine years old, she knows about auctions, about horse sales, and about being traded off. I’ve ridden her for three years, and we have had several “discussions” regarding which of us is in charge, and I think sometimes we are close to being equal.
Love involves discipline, remember. Tough love, in other words. You can’t allow a horse to push you around and take advantage of you, acting like your boss. You must be the one in charge, to earn the horse’s respect and trust, which leads to obedience and the desired submissive attitude. A horse also must be trained to know the meaning of your cues. Cues must be specific and consistent, as you teach the horse what you want for a response.
Lady has always been a good trail horse, and has shown potential in the arena as well. She will walk over tarps and allow rain coats over her back, and she isn’t spooky as long as she is away from traffic, four-wheelers, and big noisy trucks. And then suddenly, there will be a noise that scares her and you better be ready! She can think fast, move fast, and spin even faster!
Of course, I don’t believe that love alone will produce the perfect horse and rider relationship. Not without a struggle, perhaps, and patience, definitely, and many hours of good training. Much of it depends on the horse’s attitude and personality. An owner has to have a certain amount of feeling for a horse, however, to persevere. If you don’t like your horse, you may never succeed in your riding goals. I do believe that a horse must truly feel your love (a caring, protecting, responsible ownership) to have the foundation for a solid, trusting relationship.
We want our horses to feel safe in our care. We want them to be obedient, to depend on us for direction. We want them to be quiet and calmly trusting and bombproof, yet alert and responsive and focused. So when they feel loved and secure, doesn’t it make sense that they will work better for us, with deeper loyalty? I think we need that kind of trust and respect and loyalty from our horses before we can ask them to face their fears calmly. Without a mutual communication of caring, without a special bond, the relationship can be shaky at times, or worse. Hmm. Sounds a bit like marriage.
Let me touch on that very subject. Gary Chapman has written several books that discuss the five languages of love applied to marriage and family. Those languages are: physical touch, words of affirmation, quality time, acts of service, and gifts. What if we apply these five languages toward loving our horses? We already do, you know. We touch them, groom them, and massage them. We talk to them. We spend time with them. We do things for them, clean their water buckets, muck their stalls, pick their hooves and other tasks. And we give them treats of carrots, apples or mints. It is important, as we use these “languages” that they are spoken in love. For example, calling our horse a stupid idiot does not express love. Our horses know how we feel about them, and it makes a difference in their attitudes and responses. I could share several stories to prove it!
So you see, this relationship stuff applies to horses as well as husbands and even beyond.
Most of us know John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” We can know intellectually that God is love and that Jesus died to save the world, but not until His love becomes real in the depths of our own hearts does it change anything. When a person can truly know that God’s love is real and personal and unconditional, miracles happen. I remember the moment when I finally knew that love myself. I remember the words, “I am His and He is mine!” After many years of resisting and procrastinating and searching without honestly being willing to let myself surrender completely, He gave me the answer. In His great love and mercy, God had already taken care of it all.
I know what it’s like to want to belong, to want to be loved. We all do. And when it happens, there is joy, wonderful joy, and new freedom and hope, and a feeling of being whole and secure and safe and at peace. We think we will never doubt that love again. But we will. And for those times, we must learn to go beyond how we feel to a place of simple trust in a God who loves us no matter what.
The big question for each of us might be: “Do I really know in my heart that God loves me and do I trust His love no matter what?” Yes, He really loves each one of us, in spite of mistakes, weaknesses and moments of unfaithfulness. We can trust His love completely because He will always do what is best, not because of who we are or what we have done, but because He is our God.
Take time to read carefully Romans 8:38-39, from a disciple who had plenty of experience with God’s love and mercy. He tells us that NOTHING can separate us from God’s love. Ask God to reveal His love to you today. Let God fill your heart with His love and let it spill over to everyone around you. Your husband, your friends, and even your horse!
Because when you truly experience God’s love in your life, you will discover a new attitude and a new perspective on life.
(Originally published in the March 2007 issue of the Illinois Horse Network)