Monday, March 21, 2011


A Ravenseyrie sunrise on March 11, 2011 after another dynamic winter snowstorm

Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished. --Lao Tzu

I found I was rushing--in my mind--and it made my body tense, my movements unsure and clumsy and I began to question that everything would, indeed, be accomplished as it should. This foal should have been up and nursing by now, and yet, there it lay in the icy snow, exhausted and getting colder by the minute. Here in this beautiful moment, my sense of how much time things were taking made me worry that we might have our first tragedy unfolding here at the Sorraia Mustang Preserve...

Waiting with great anticipation for a third foal from Ciente and Altamiro began last May when Ciente did not come into heat. This stunning Kiger Mustang mare accepted the overtures of her handsome Sorraia stallion for a string of nine days beginning the end of March and ending in the second day of April. She was settled, and stayed in good form during the long gestation period and Kevin and I watched Ciente, along with the other horses inhabiting Ravenseyrie, with calm admiration for their naturally born adaptation to wilderness living.

But it wasn't until the month of February that my expectation of the upcoming foaling began to be tinged with worry for what kind of weather we might have on the island. February can be a decidedly harsh month on Manitoulin Island and many a March day is fueled with winter's wrath as well. Would the elements prove too daunting for the survival of a foal born on the range in Northern Ontario in late winter?

Should the conditions be brutal, we would plan to bring Ciente into the tractor shed where we could better monitor her. Knowing that to extract Ciente from the family band would anger Altamiro and cause great anxiety for Ciente and the others, we would only do so if we felt the situation absolutely required that type of intervention.

Throughout the month of February our weather was like a roller coaster, nice days with almost all our snow melting, followed by a deep chill with the thermometer dropping to -26°C over night. If it got warmer it snowed. When it stopped snowing, it got bitterly cold. And each new day, Ciente looked closer to foaling than the day before. She moved a little slower and became rather meditative beginning in early February, and she began cleverly coming up to the shed on her own for "specials" while the others were busy at their piles of hay.

I will share with you the notes from my calendar and some photos taken during that time.

February 14 / Ciente's udder barely visible but showing wax on teats.

February 24 / Ciente's foal shifted in the abdomen, is now carried lower and further back. Mentally, Ciente seems a little "spacey" today.

February 27 / Ciente's udder beginning to distend slightly, and showing wax dots

March 6th / Ciente definitely bagged up, the largest I've ever seen her udder, not unlike a suitcase hanging between her legs, especially noticeable from behind.

During this time, we watched Ciente obsessively, and one evening I for sure felt the foal would be born for Ciente's vulva was so warm and slack. But by morning with the temperature once again bitterly cold, that vulva was zippered tightly shut against the frigid air. Some days I was glad Ciente was holding that baby in and other days, when maybe we had three rather mellow days in a row, I was frustrated that she kept us all still waiting.

And we waited and waited, imagining that every slow step and lift of tail was a prelude to Ciente beginning her labour. All throughout the day, with binoculars ever present, Kevin and I gave each other reports on where "Fat Horse" was and what "Fat Horse" was doing. With all the usual signals seeming to indicate that delivery was near, I began to worry a bit that something might be wrong with this pregnancy.

Were it not for Ciente's serene attitude and her keeping up her daily routines with the other horses, I might have been deeply concerned that a problem had developed. Instead, we just kept up good expectations and waited and waited and waited. Our vigilance was two-fold: 1. we of course desire that we are available to assist the mares--only if necessary--when they foal (which doesn't always work out with semi-wild horses roaming an expansive natural setting) and 2. having been present when the very first foal (Animado) was born I wanted to know if Altamiro would once again help the mare with the foal and if the mare stayed with the herd or went off somewhere on her own to give birth as we are so commonly told happens in the wild. With the exception of Animado, I was always an hour or more late on the scene when the other foals have been born. I really wanted to be able to be with Ciente during this foaling. Would the fates allow for it this time?

March 17 / Ciente's udder dripping at time of evening feeding

March 18 /
Ciente delivers a filly approximately 7:30am, and I am there to record it! Total gestation time, +/- 350 days

We had some more melting take place and the temperature was just a little above freezing when dawn came on Friday March 18th. Mistral's group came up as usual for breakfast, but not the family band. Through our binoculars we could see them at juncture between fields where the dying Maple trees are. I spotted Ciente and she was still "Fat Horse", but the band was acting edgy and definitely were not coming up for breakfast, so while Kevin took care of Mistral's group, I hauled out a load of hay to where the family band was. As I neared, I could see that Ciente had just delivered her foal! Hurriedly, I put in place all the piles of hay I'd brought out for the other members. Then I stopped to take a few photos. Altamiro was about thirty feet away from Ciente and watching keenly. Silvestre, Ciente's 2009 colt (who Ciente weaned off her milk in spring of 2010, but who was still tolerated in the family band for now) stood nearby.

I could see the foal was struggling to get up but was prevented by the amnion sac.

I was alarmed by this! Would the foal suffocate? As I hurried over and prepared myself to slide the amnion off from this foal, its struggling managed to tear the sac sufficiently that it's muzzle was now free, so I remained on the sidelines ready to leap into assistance if Ciente needed me to.

Twice Altamiro attempted to advance closer to the scene, but each time was driven away by Ciente so eventually he wandered off to eat hay with the rest of the family band and Silvestre was heading that way now too after receiving a rebuke from his mother. Whether Altamiro was intending to help or just satisfy his curiosity it seems that it was Ciente's choice to not have the stallion assisting.

At first, Ciente seemed as if she, too, was going to leave and go join the others to who were eating breakfast hay. I stopped her and gave her a cookie and told her she needed to tend to her baby. After one more long look at the rest of the family eating hay, Ciente got to work helping get the foal free from that slippery amnion sac.

The foal's attempts to get up had become severely hampered by the twisting of the amnion around its right front leg. Again, I wanted to intervene, but just as I began to reach out to slip that sac off, Ciente managed to get the foal to try one more time and the leg reached free of the sac.

Between Ciente's licking and tearing at the sac and the foal's struggles to sit up and stand up, after what seemed like an eternity, the foal was completely free of the amnion sac, but not in the clear of potentially harmful elements. Underneath all that snow was a huge pool of ice water and the tired newborn foal was physically exhausted and laying on a frigid surface.

I went over and took some hay from the family band's piles and put it under the foal. For its part, the foal took up a new struggle to get up and managed to quickly slide off from the hay, then fell back into the cold snow and ice water. Complicating this, Silvestre came around again, and again Ciente let him know she did not appreciate his presence just now. Thankfully Kevin came now on the scene with more hay and we were both able to lift the foal up on to a nice dry pile of it, away from the pool of ice water.

At this point, Ciente decided to stop helping her foal and began eating, so Kevin and I took over the job. We rubbed the foal with wads of hay and then some towels. During this time I was able to check for gender and found out Ciente and Altamiro had produced their first filly! Also during this time I got to witness this filly's very first bowel movement...which is just one of the many exciting things one looks for in a healthy newborn foal.

But this filly was weary and it had been some time since she had made any renewed efforts to get up, nor did Ciente make any further attempts to help her, and instead was focused on eating hay.

When the filly one more time fell back into that very cold, helpless completely prone posture, we decided we would try and help get the filly up on her legs. Even though we had gotten the filly up out of the ice water and snow and managed to get her relatively dry, there was a cold wind blowing over and we really feared that she might just give up and begin to suffer hypothermia from which she would not recover. We began rubbing her once more until she once again sat up and tried her legs. With Kevin lifting the hindquarters and me supporting the front, the filly managed to stand on her feet, leaning heavily into my arms for support and weaving, feeling like any moment she would tumble to the ground again. But after several minutes, Kevin could feel that her hind legs were steady and so he let go. She almost fell into my arms, but feeling my support she stayed up and then, I could feel that she "had it". There was a definite shift as she assumed control of her own weight (a truly amazing sensation for me to feel!) and as I slowly let go of her, this newborn filly not only stood on her own, but took her first few steps. Of course, she went down again, and we moved in to get her back up, but she did it this time all by herself. Such joy!!!

Immediately the filly began to make suckling gestures with her mouth, but since she wasn't next to Ciente she got nothing but air. We helped guide the filly to Ciente's side. Now that the filly was up, Ciente once again took up her motherly duties. She would occasionally touch the filly, sometimes shift her position, but otherwise just waited for the filly to figure out where that "on-tap foal elixir" was. It seemed to take forever and the filly was getting discouraged. I worried that she was going to give up and lay back down in that frigid ice water. There were so many near the mark attempts and many more outright misses. By now the chill had gotten to me and I was shivering and clattering my teeth. Kevin suggested we go to the house get me warmed up and come back out with more hay for Ciente. We could keep an eye on things from the house and if the filly went down, we could rush out and get her back up. I reluctantly (but wisely) agreed with Kevin's plan. Upon getting back to the house I noted that a little over three hours had passed since Ciente delivered her foal.

And of course when we went back out, the filly had indeed found where her dinner was waiting for her. Certainly Lao Tzu is right to have said "Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished."

As Kevin and I watched Ciente and the rest of the family band eat their early evening hay, we felt good that we were able to help this new filly make it through her first hurdles in her out-of-the-womb existence, but we also worried a little knowing she had a landscape of ice and snow to cope with and a freezing night to get through.

But the wind had died down and the baby looked robust and her and Ciente were following the movements of the rest of the herd. "Do you wish you had a barn to put them in tonight?" Kevin asked me. "Yes, and no," I replied. Yes, because it seems to me like a real hardship to be born at this time of the year, and no, because I know that Ciente's desire to stay with the herd is very strong and to remove her from it would pose difficulties for her and for Altamiro. Having felt for myself the depth of the winter coat this filly was born with and trusting in the good way the horses always take care of themselves during all kinds of weather, I believed we would see a lively, fluffy filly in the morning.

And we did.

"I then pass the whole day in the open air, and hold spiritual communion with the tendrils of the vine, which say good things to me and of which I could tell you wonders." --Goethe

This filly yesterday happily received her name. And what else could she be named except, Esperanda!

Esperando, in Portuguese means "waiting" and "expecting". It seems that from the moment of conception, it has been the destiny of this lovely feminine creature to keep an admiring public waiting. And already this little Sorraia sage has taught me a lesson in how to enjoy the beauty of whatever time it takes for things to take their natural course...

Esperanda is certainly worth the wait, I'm sure you agree!

"Because we are taught so may untruths about what we can know, about what Nature is and is not, the first step in gathering knowledge from the heart of the world is to go 'into' the world on your own, abandoning your preconceptions. No expert can tell you what is there. No book knows the living reality of it." --S. H. Buhner

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Ask the Expert

Today's journal entry is a collaborative effort that requires a bit of an introduction.

Back in April of 2009, the Journal of Ravenseyrie was fortunate to be given permission to reprint The Horse Too is Allowed to Say “No” an article by Imke Spilker, author of Empowered Horses. More recently, a reader named Cyndi left several comments sharing her enthusiasm for Imke's writings along with a handful of questions, which quite naturally would be prompted by such a "radical" approach to horse/human relationships.

Within the comment section of that earlier journal entry, I provided my personal thoughts and answers for Cyndi--if you missed them, you can read by following the hyper-link for the article above.

Both this particular article and the Empowered Horses book were translated into English by my friend Kristina McCormack. Kris was kind enough to share Cyndi's queries with Imke Spilker, and together Kris and Imke generated a dialogue of their thoughts and perceptions which Cyndi's questions had sparked. It is our good fortune that these deep-thinking women have been willing to share their "answers" within today's journal entry.

As readers move through the thought-provoking text I hope you will enjoy some recent scenes from Ravenseyrie (where it is still very much wintertime).

Cyndi's Comments and Questions:

I finally finished "Empowered Horses", and plan to start re-reading it soon! I really enjoyed it, and found it to be quite inspirational. I would love to spend some time watching people like Imke, to better grasp what she does with her horses, as I am unsure about what I am doing, and I am a visual learner :o)

I do have questions. Some of the horses, like El Paso and Passaro, who were so did they do routine things like hoof trimming with these guys before their transformations? When it takes years to get some of these horses to this point, what do you do for vet visits and such?

It was interesting to study the body language of the horses during play. I can see from the pictures that my mare is often showing signs of playful pleasure. What about head tossing? Some would say that head tossing is a sign of irritation by the horse...or can it also be play? I suppose it would depend on what other parts of the body are doing, to interpret that properly.

I have heard that if you let your horse act out or do whatever it wants, that that can reinforce rude behaviour...for instance, a horse may learn that if he does a certain behaviour, people will back off. At what point does the horse start coming around?

I'm sorry for asking so many questions, but if I don't ask, then I won't know :o)

I highly recommend this book.

Kristina McCormack:

When Lynne first drew my attention to Cyndi’s comments, she asked me if I would respond with an account of my own experiences with Khe-Ra and her hooves. Khe-Ra is a “volatile” young horse who had major issues about a number of things, including having a hoof held up. The simple everyday experience of having a hoof cleaned made her tense, fearful, and angry. Trimming was out of the question. As I wrote to Lynne, I hesitate to bring up how Khe-Ra and I dealt with this, because I do not want to imply that what we did -- and did not do -- was the "right answer" or even applicable to *any* other horse-human interaction. The answer, for me, to these kinds of questions is: there is no one right answer.

Imke Spilker:

Yes, you are absolutely right! The answers to such questions are found first and foremost with the horses themselves. But in the book of the Empowered Horses there is also quite a bit about this. Actually, I wrote the book precisely because of these kinds of questions that Cyndi poses. Even the title “Empowered Horses” (“Selbstbewusste Pferde) is one -- my personal -- answer to our “problem” of volatile horses.” A horse that has become empowered, will no longer flee. He will “stand his ground.”


My own experience with the book of the Empowered Horses is that there is so much to be learned in its pages that it requires many readings, with close attention to the photos. Even now, every time I open it I find something new. Yet, Imke receives quite a bit of correspondence from readers who want something more. Having read the book once and been moved by it, they want to know what to *do* to put the principles of the Empowered Horses into practice. They want guidance, instructions, exercises. They want to watch Imke work with horses, so that they can learn from *her.* This desire, this “need” for answers from an expert seems perfectly natural. After all, how are we going to learn if not from someone who knows? We want to do the right thing for our horses, so we seek out what we think are the best possible experts with whom to study. The mistake we make is seeking out only human experts. We begin to learn when we realize that the real expert on this subject about which we are so passionate, the best possible teacher, is this horse standing next to us right now. We begin to really learn when we devote ourselves to “studying” with him.


In that spirit, what good does it actually do to relay stories of Passaro’s or El Paso’s farrier visits? Vets and farriers do not try to hurt horses, they do not want to harm them, do they? In all honesty, my feeling is that stories like this are not very useful -- they tend to bring people further away from their own horses. And it is their horses that this all should be about.


If I want to have a closer friendship with someone, do I go watch two other friends interacting with one another? And if I were silly enough to try that, what could I possibly learn about the person with whom I want to be friends?


Yes, exactly!. What kind of a person on a date would continually text other friends for suggestions and advice about what to say next?


I think we do this with horses because we’ve been taught lies -- for example, that horses are dangerous, stupid, need to be shown who is boss, etc. -- and that there is a “right” way to “handle” them. We want to learn that right way. And, it seems so much easier to follow a detailed “recipe” formulated by an expert, than to cultivate our own awareness and truly be in the moment -- moment after moment -- with a horse, listening to him with an open heart, responding intuitively. So, -- almost unconsciously -- we continually look for “one size fits all” instructions

There is no general rule or procedure for interacting with "volatile" horses, or any horses for that matter .... except maybe to LISTEN to them, to pay attention to what they're trying to tell us. That in itself is a huge undertaking, and worthy of all the energy and attention we can give.

Everything depends... on the horse, the person, the relationship between them,the situation, the individual moment, and countless other variables.


Nevertheless, most humans want certainties and methods and other humans to whom they can attach themselves.

But how can I expect a horse to believe in me more than he believes in other horses, when I myself listen more to others of my own kind, when I more readily give them my trust, than my horse -- who is actually what this is all about!?


Aren’t we humans silly? Just look at what we do, over and over again -- we want to know how our horse feels, what he is thinking, how we can help him feel better, move better, how we can be a better friend to him .... and instead of asking him, spending time with him, entering into a real dialog with him, we seek out another human -- one who likely does not know this horse at all, has never even laid eyes on him.

We study with this person, we hang on his every word, we watch him interact with other horses and we strive to do our best to do what he does. We work so hard to be good students. We follow instructions to the letter. And, in the end, what have we learned?

Mostly, we’ve learned to deny our own feelings, instinct, and intuition -- yet these qualities are precisely what we need to “hear” and understand the horses in our lives. We’ve learned to shut out our horse. By studying the human experts, learning their formulas and methods, diligently imitating them -- we make ourselves blind and deaf in our interactions with horses. We forsake the living reality of here and now and cling to the abstract -- someone else’s words and gestures.

When we have spent a lifetime learning to deny our feelings and intuition, being told to rely on them sounds just plain crazy... and frightening. We don’t trust ourselves. (No wonder, when we’ve always been taught that some expert knows better.) We don’t trust Horse. . We only trust other human beings.

And we call horses herd-bound.

Kris continues:

So, basically, Imke’s answer to these kinds of questions is: “Ask the expert, the real expert! Go to your horse!”

Which brings up one more question, namely: If we should learn primarily from interaction with our horses rather than from other human beings , why then do you (Imke) give seminars and lessons? Why do you even teach?


Your horse is and will always be the best expert to ask, even when you
come to a clinic with me. My task there is to transmit and translate. If someone comes just to observe, “to see how it is done,” I will gently explain that "it" cannot be learned by watching me, and I will send him home to his horse.

We can begin to understand only when we have completely moved out of the observer
perspective and engage with the horse ourselves. Interaction with the horse is the path to understanding.

It is true that sometimes a person stands in front of his horse, absolutely clueless -- and the horse is just as clueless regarding the human. In that situation, I try to “open the gate" so that the two of them can come together.

Sometimes the horse-human pair has a history together, a great deal of accumulated “baggage” over which they stumble again and again. But the fundamental problem, the essential difficulty in the horse- human relationship is actually that horses are too nice to us. They will do almost anything for us. Give a human a hoof and he'll take the whole horse. We human beings do not notice that we do this, or, if we do, we have no idea what to do about it.

My teaching is for people who envision their horses empowered, who want to help them become more powerful. If you want to see me for the sake of seeing Imke Spilker, I will gladly say “hello” to you and we can chat for a while. But that will not satisfy you. It cannot. That which is essential happens between you and your horse. As long as you do not realize that, there is nothing I can do.

On the other hand, if you are someone, who, in the company of horses, always asks yourself: “How do I fit-in here, what can I do with these creatures that will not harm them?” or, even better, “how can I, a human being, make myself useful to them?” -- if those are your questions, I have some suggestions for you!

How thankful I am to Cyndi for posing her good questions and for Kris McCormack and Imke Spilker for their provocative responses. Not too unlike a Zen koan, I think that the perceptions shared in this dialogue serve very well to lead us to meaningful personal realizations where our horses and our inner sense of what is appropriate in any given situation is spontaneously revealed, moment to moment precisely because we--horse and human--are more tuned into each other than anyone or anything else.

(Please click on image to see larger format)
Photos courtesy of K. McCormack