Monday, June 29, 2009

Whims of a Wilderness Stallion

A study in contrasts: the lovely Polish Arabian concave profile of the aged gelding, Mistral and the aristocratic convex profile of the four year old Sorraia stallion, Altamiro.

Eva left a comment in my last journal entry that included:
"How are the domestics doing? Have they settled into their own little society with their own rituals? Is Mistral putting on weight and enjoying himself? How do you divide your time between these bands?"

This seems as good a segue as any to show off Altamiro a little and at the same time answer Eva's queries.

Altamiro continues to keep the domestics away from his harem band. While the draft mules, Dee, Doll and Jerry appear to have "floater's rights", Zeus and Mistral are not allowed in close at all. Dee and Doll do not enter the nucleus of the harem, but they are tolerated enough to graze off fifty feet or more, and Jerry is often closer than that and engaged in playful sparring by Altamiro and (even Animado and Interessado on rare occasions).
Doll, takes a break from grazing to keep an eye out for where the primitives are going...soon she followed at a respectful distance, as did her other mule mates.

Whether it is pheromones in the wind or a casual derisive gaze the domestics throw at Altamiro, he occasionally puts a chase on the geldings or as in the sequence of photos (below) shows, goes out and has a "discussion". What I find especially interesting about the series of photos I'm sharing today is how ardent and earnest Altamiro is in delivering his part of the conversation, and how "ho-hum" Mistral's response is to what Altamiro feels is so important to talk about.
In the end, Mistral's self-control kept him from being caught up in whatever drama this young Sorraia stallion was hoping to create and the "event" fizzled into each of them going about grazing the grasses and herbs while slowly working their way back to their respective herd mates.

Altamiro is a stallion who has a lot of energy and is often motivated by whims that I have yet to come to understand that have him going off and trying to create something exciting to do as an outlet for his energy. One comment from a reader was compelled to point out that she had heard from the Portuguese themselves that "a typical Sorraia will often be aggressive and stubborn" and this same reader commented that "I also wanted to add that I have met Sovina [the Sorraia stallion in Oregon] in person. He is just as stubborn and aggressive as the Portuguese say that the Sorraia is typical for." Watching Altamiro express himself and delight in the way his body feels when he shows off, I can well imagine that if one were to take a horse like this and put him in a dirt paddock all by himself, or cloister him in a stall, he would, having no natural outlet for his extraordinary energy and verve, indeed become "aggressive and stubborn". This commentator felt this reflected the Sorraia's lack of quality, but I find it to be an example of the primitive wild horse psyche that is not so easily given to doing things the way humans demand. One comes to such a noble creature with great humility and a desire to engage each other in a more egalitarian fashion, which provides immense reward, as I'll describe further down in today's journal entry.

But first, to answer more of Eva's queries.

Zeus and Mistral will often now take their grazing breaks under the windblown spruce tree up by the house. Sly boys...they know that the more they are by the house, the more likely it is that Kevin and Lynne will come out with apples, adoring praise for their exquisite good looks and itch sessions! The next two photos, show Zeus enjoying the good itching Kevin is giving him.
Now that there are fourteen equines living here, I'm finding it difficult to give everyone the attention that I'd like to - but if I am honest with myself, probably it doesn't matter all that much to the horses and mules. Theirs is a life of fascinatingly rich relationships among themselves with a never ending variety of routines that they carry out over the varied 360 acres they call home. I believe they enjoy whatever attention they receive from us humans, but I don't think they consider themselves lacking if they don't get an in-depth one on one with either Kevin or I. It's a bit humbling to realize how unnecessary we are to them, at least when their entire environment provides all their needs. (In wintertime, our presence in their lives is much more essential to them.)

I'd also like to share today some photos taken on Sunday, after a good rain shower. I had gone out to where the primitives were and was once again delighted by the nuances of the varieties of their grulla colouring, especially against the slightly foggy character of the atmosphere.

Sovina's Zorita, due to have her foal in late August--I sure love her colour!

Altamiro was standing about thirty feet off from his harem, dozing. His senses picked up the presence of dogs moving through the area and in this photo he is suddenly fully awake, appraising the passage of our dog, Tobacco off in the distance. His posture took my breath away, and even though I wasn't at the best angle to take a photo showing his wonderful conformation to best advantage, this image nevertheless conveys what a spectacular presence Altamiro possesses.

The magnificent Sorraia stallion, Altamiro!

After Altamiro had determined the canine passing by was Tobacco and not some roaming wolf, he settled back down into a posture that would soon bring him back to the state of dozing. I went over and stood on a rock that was about fifteen feet away and beckoned him to come over for itches. He regarded me with a bored expression, cocked a hip and closed his eyes. So, I went over to him and began to scratch all the spots that the biting insects had left welts as souvenirs of their blood-gathering visits. I could tell by the way he was responding that the boy was now hooked. So I went back over to the rock and motioned him to come, which he did and he lined himself up right in position for me to slide aboard. Altamiro is an "unbroke" semi-wild young stallion, and yet here he was offering me his back. I did not throw a leg over, but I definitely used the opportunity drape my upper body over his back and itch him on the opposite side. He was very steady, very mellow and very pleased to have this type of scratching taking place. I was euphoric, of course! And, I can well imagine there will one day be mounted itches in our future - and if he is willing, perhaps even some explorations into brief artistic riding...

Last year, I would not have imagined this type of closeness with Altamiro--he was going through a period of aloofness and sometimes when I would reach out to caress him, he would snort and run the other way. I felt like he'd forgotten how close we had grown when he was one and two years old. I felt he looked upon me with a certain sense of distrust. It grieved me for awhile, so I had to remind myself that Altamiro's role as a herd stallion would likely mean that he would not ever want me to ride him or even share an intimate friendship. I came to accept this and admired how he was developing into such a spectacular, vigilant and vigorous stallion--I realized it was enough to just glory in his presence. But this year, we have had many great connections, hooking into that synchronized "heart to heart" resonance that has become, for me, the only way I want to be with horses.

This photo shows the position Altamiro took up when he wanted me to give his buttocks and tail a thorough itching.

To have a young stallion living among his harem of mares out in the big wide open make the choice of his own volition to come and have a heart to heart interaction with me has got to be one of life's most magical experiences--far better than trying to befriend him by putting him in a separate dirt paddock so that he has no choice but to pay attention to me.

After this special one on one time with Altamiro, I went over to share some time with Fada. Soon, Altamiro got whiff of something about Ciente that caused him to passage elegantly over to where she was and engage her in some soft, murmuring dialogue. I couldn't get my camera out in time to capture his gorgeous dance in collection, but I did get a couple of photos of the intimate talk these two were having. Does he sense that she is to deliver her foal in the next couple of weeks? (The one photo shows Fada's ears as I was taking the photos with one hand and continuing to itch her with the other).

Altamiro and Ciente converse about something only they know the content of.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Primitive Grullas in Clover

Shelagh and Maeb take a break while I begin taking photos of the splendor that surrounds us.

The prairie land at Ravenseyrie has become a landscape filled with wildflowers, delicious sweet & spicy fragrances and the hum of insects. We've recently had a string of hot and humid days, several of which were accompanied by a noticeable absence of our usual East Bluff winds, making the days dreadfully oppressive and very little for the horses and mules to do but stay continually on the move through their forest trails, brushing the blood-thirsty flies and mosquitoes off.

Prior to this stretch of sultry summer stickiness, we had sublime warmth with gently cooling beezes and more often than not, the horses remained out in the open with heads plucking at the amazing variety of edibles that the environment so abundantly provides.

The primitives group together for a mid-morning nap among the wildflowers.

Encantara wakes from her fully prone nap to nibble on the slender grasses amidst the Ox-Eye Daisys.
Along the tree-line in the background, you can see the yellow of the Buttercups growing there.

We experienced an extremely cool, very wet spring and boy-howdy has this made a huge difference in the amount and size of the wildflowers, grasses, shrubs, etc.! Nothing seems to have benefited from the cool wetness more than the clovers!

We have Red, White and Alsike clovers growing in massive, heavily scented tracts.
Zorita's light grulla color looks especially lovely amidst this tract of clover.

The Alsike clover (Trifolium hybridum) is especially profuse this year, mingling right in with our usual copious amounts of Red clover.
Alsike Clover above, and Red Clover below

With so many cautions against horses grazing on this clover due to its toxic effects of photosynthesis and liver damage, I was initially alarmed to see so much of it growing this year. In years past, the scanty, low growing patches of Alsike clover seemed deliberately passed over by the intuitive herd--but, eegaads! this year they are seeking it out with abandon!

Animado grazing in the Alsike Clover

Zorita feasting on the Alsike Clover

Altamiro pauses from grazing, a Alsike Clover flower dangling from his lips.

Even Encantara is enjoying the taste of Alsike Clover

There have been no detected ill effects of these clover feasts and I have noted that the actual time they spend specifically gorging on the clover is brief, five or ten minutes and then they move back to the grasses.

Ciente and Zorita are the first to make the choice to leave the clover and resume dining on grasses.

If I were a scientist, I'd be keen to test this year's Alsike clover against other years to determine what about the growth this year has made it so attractive for the horses, while in prior years, they've eschewed it. My laywoman's hunch is that in typical growing seasons (which means relatively dry for the East Bluff), the Alsike has a certain unpalatable chemical that serves as a deterrent to animals and insects that would like to consume it, and that unless horses do not have other grazing choices, they will avoid this clover because they find its taste unpleasant. In a year of hyper-abundance, the plant may have no need to produce the chemicals that would account for its toxicity and it is free to be as sweet and inviting (and nutritious) as is the Red and White clover.
Pretty as a picture is our Shelagh!

Some of the other wild flowers that are in bloom now are Ox-Eye Daisy and Yellow Goat's Beard

Yellow and Orange Hawkweed are in bloom too, though not as widely spread as in they were in the drier summers we've had.

Maeb enjoying a summer morning amid the wildflowers

Harvested Red Clover flowers make a delicious and refreshing sweet herbal tea.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Reflections on Hierarchy and Aggression

A "Top of the World" view from Ravenseyrie overlooking Lake Huron's North Channel

I posted a journal entry in April which prompted a couple of comments from a reader the other day. In this particular journal entry I shared a long quote from an article written by Imke Spilker which I had found inspiring. One reader, however, found Imke's words to be misleading generalizations and wanted to share her concerns based on her own personal experience. I would like to address those concerns here because I think there may be something for us all to reflect upon in a helpful way.

The article I quoted from is titled, The Horse Too is Allowed to Say "No". The quote I used in my journal entry says:
To come to an understanding with communicative horses, the person must absolutely not be an “expert.” On the contrary, a “newbie” is more open, giving the horses space comes easier to him. The horses are happy to teach us and enjoy that role. A prerequisite is that the person has learned to pay attention to his partner, the horse, and respect his wishes. The horses sense whether or not a basis of mutuality exists. Once it is established, both parties can develop their sensitivity, to themselves and to the other. Intuitive understanding functions (only) in both directions. Naturally, we are asked whether this kind of interaction can become dangerous for the human being. Horses are by nature peaceful beings who do not make victims of weaker ones, and who scrupulously avoid deliberately hurting someone. Danger exists when the person applies pressure and force, and the horse can no longer retreat from the situation. A horse who has the possibility of walking away, whose needs for peace and space are respected, will harm no one. A game into which the horse is pressured is no longer one (even if the person is amused by it). On the other hand, without force or threat, even the most strenuous exercises can be playfully easy for the horse. One must learn to let go, and one must think from the horse’s perspective – that is all too gladly forgotten about. To me there is nothing safer than communicating with horses in this way -- anything else strikes me as too dangerous. I do not like battles because someone always has to lose. The message that comes across when we communicate with one another depends to a large degree on how we say something. That applies to communication with horses as well. A horse must be able to say “no” at any time and have the freedom to leave, and then we human beings must design our work in such away that the horse truly benefits by it. --Imke Spilker

On June 12, this comment was posted which focused on one sentence (which I've made bold for emphasis) of the above quote:

I just wanted to post a question about the letter of Ms Imke. When she states that "a horse that has the possibility of walking away whose needs for peace and rest are respected will harm no one". With the solely spirit of learning their ways and with all respect due, I would like to ask a question based on that statement. How then low rank horses pick on lower rank ones, why horses that aren't high in the hierarchy will charge others only as a display of dominance aggression, etc (choose your word)and it will harm them if the other don't leave quick enough or if caught off guard?. It's their way, it's proactive way of testing their place in the group. They can display this behaviour with humans as well because for this horse we are lower so he can go after us just as they can go after the chickens, it won't matter who but the position, rank, etc they have a that particular moment in the group. Just to mention that the way Ms Imke writes it it's not necessarily so,maybe it depends.
marisela gould

I posted the following brief reply:
Thank you for taking time to leave a comment and pose a very good question regarding what Imke Spilker has written regarding allowing the horse the option to exercise a "no" by being free to leave.

If you would allow me a day or so, I will devote an entire journal entry to the issues you have raised here.

For now, I would simply like to suggest that the relationship we desire to have with our horses is not the same as the relationship horses have with each other...what ever means of communication we share will be unique to our horse/human relationship.

More to follow.

I do appreciate your taking the time to post your comments, Marisela.

And the next day, Marisela offered further commentary to assist our understanding of her feelings regarding Imke's statement:
Dear Lynne,

I appreciate equally you taking the time to read and comment on this question. I also share your view relating to the relationship horse to horse is different from horse-human for a variety of reasons . I would like to illustrate this comment with my personal experience as I have experimented with the horses here. I did this excersise with a low-rank mare here where I played being intimidated by her. It took less than 3 minutes and she already bought my act, her next move was charge me. I show this just to illustrated that some individuals can and will show aggressiveness toward humans even at complete freedom with no restrains. Not all and everyone but there are exceptions. I don't think is about being human or dog, chicken, it's about hierarchy, pecking order or similar concept( again plain personal observations). Ms Imke comment is generalizing horse behaviour and it can be misleading and foster a preconceived believe with which we can force (in our minds) behaviour instead of just accepting what is there, just plain noticing based on blank, nothing, no expectations, just as is not as we wish, hope, need should be. All I did was to use body language and within a very short time it empowered her to charge, ears, teeth , pied-a-terre type of movement and all she had. What I just said it's based only on my personal observations.
Thank you again for your time and thoughts.

Since receiving these comments, I have, of course, been reflecting on Marisela's words and the concepts of hierarchy and aggression and how Marisela's experience relates to things Imke Spilker has written. I am reluctant to comment directly on Marisela's experiment, wherein she played being intimidated by a low ranking mare, as there are far too many variables undefined which may have effected the expression of aggression this mare demonstrated. Rather, I'd like to relay that Imke Spilker is not unaware of the potential for horses to act out in aggressive ways, and, in fact she has some interesting stories of her own to share in her book, EMPOWERED HORSES. Imke devotes herself to finding a way to empower horses that is beneficial for them and uses observation of each horse's means of expression to develop exercises that channel their energies into positive actions that help horses mentally and physically.

Let's look back at the other elements of the quote in question...the sentences before and after the one that Marisela feels is misleading. Then I will share what meaning I find in them and how it applies to my interactions with horses. Hopefully using this means of reflection will help Marisela understand the spirit with which Imke wrote the statement in question.

A prerequisite is that the person has learned to pay attention to his partner, the horse, and respect his wishes. The horses sense whether or not a basis of mutuality exists. Once it is established, both parties can develop their sensitivity, to themselves and to the other.

Danger exists when the person applies pressure and force, and the horse can no longer retreat from the situation.

A game into which the horse is pressured is no longer one (even if the person is amused by it).

The message that comes across when we communicate with one another depends to a large degree on how we say something. That applies to communication with horses as well.

Within the variety of equines I share my life with here at Ravenseyrie, there are four horses in particular that, should I want to experiment by playing a game that pretends I am intimidated by them, would in all likelihood be perceived as strange, potentially threatening behavior from me, which would cause them enough mental stress to act out aggressively as a means of getting me out of their space. I find this to be their absolute right to make their opinions so obvious. I know that Altamiro, Belina, Zeus and Zorita each are easily agitated and things they find unsettling bring out expressions of aggression, and therefore it would be inconceivable that I would use a hierarchical "game" for any reason, because I know it is not something they would find the least bit of pleasure in. A game like this with any of the others would prompt sufficient befuddlement from them, but they are not they type of horses (or mules) to feel threatened by my pretending to be intimidated by them.

The importance of paying attention to the essence of each horse and respecting their wishes is what helps the horse discern our mutuality. My intentions, the feeling in my heart, my overall desire to find common ground with the horses is something that I must continually monitor and recognize that the single most thing a horse will measure me by is if my inner thoughts match my body's expression. Complete honesty in how I present myself to them is essential in assuring the horses that I respect their need for peace and space. It is also the basis of how I can assist the horses in knowing themselves in relation to me and how we proceed with developing our relationship further. In this way, when I am interacting with a horse I avoid situations that would bring out aggression toward me and foster a self-control and understanding on the horse's part that forgives and overlooks (or simply leaves my presence) in times when I fall short of being the best partner to them that I can be.

On page 176 of Empowered Horses, Imke wrote:
A horse that learns to know himself also learns to master himself. Horses can and want to understand vulnerability. They know what it is to be afraid. Of course, for our part, we have to lay open our weaknesses rather than bury them in a dominant approach. A horse that is master of himself is an absolutely reliable partner: it is, after all, about togetherness, about friendship.

When I approach my horses, I do not think about hierarchy between us at all. I am, however, aware of how each horse behaves among his herd mates and take this into consideration on how he or she may potentially respond to me and tailor my interactions in ways that are empowering but not provocative. I approach each of my horses in an egalitarian, admiringly respectful manner, whether I am reaching out to connect with a young foal, an aloof mare or the vigilant stallion. I come to them as an equal being who desires interaction--not as a parent figure, or a boss, or a dominant leader, but as a friend. I come as a human friend who is not as muscularly endowed as they are and cannot engage in physical contact in the same manner which horses do among themselves. (I believe this is what Imke means when she writes, "we have to lay open our weaknesses rather than bury them in a dominant approach".) If they desire to spend time with me, we might then explore play, work, schooling, leading, following, etc. all in a fluid "back and forth" dialogue. Perhaps on a given day, my horse desires me to be the leader so that he can follow me into learning something new. On another day, my horse might want to take the initiative and determine for himself what he'd like to pursue and have me support him as a coach or friend.

Yes, horses use hierarchy and pecking order amongst themselves and sometimes they have outbursts of aggression (though observing my herd living a semi-wild existence I feel hierarchy and aggression is much more fluid than most doctrines which base their training on it would have us believe). The intention to do harm is not something I have found to be part of these outbursts - their intention is to be understood...and when there is understanding, there is an overall peacefulness that is not disrupted by petty squabbles that appear so physically violent to us. In developing a mutuality between myself and the horses, keen awareness and extreme politeness in friendship are the elements I use to bring about a deeper relationship that allows us to explore things together that horses and humans would not be able to do without each other.

Marisela, I don't know if this lengthy reply is helpful to you or not. If one takes that one sentence out of context, I can certainly see why one would find it to be a misleading generalization - however, I hope I have demonstrated that Imke's statement is based on elements of mutuality between horses and humans that must be addressed first and foremost in order to have full understanding.

I hope you will consider acquiring Imke's book, Empowered Horses, which will illuminate things so much better than I have tried to do.