A Pain Response

“I think she’s really sore.”


I read these words from the dressage coach I sent Fiona to in the San Diego area. I was lucky to work with her a year prior, and when Fiona had some troubles, she seemed the best resource to be able to help Fiona either improve, or find a new home in the rich horse market that is California.


“Maybe nothing that would be a big deal on its own, but something that could make anxiety a lot worse.”


I tend to think of pain as a narcissist, a self-important voice focusing on the “I” in its name saying “I’m tired, I hurt, I need something else, I need more, I am absolutely the most important thing you have to think about.”


Now I thought about pain as an amplifier.


I was recently out to dinner with my mother. We had a beautiful view, savory food, and each other’s company. We also had a phone-focused couple next to us, the female of whom had a high, nasal voice reminiscent of an air leak, and a large party beside us with kids doing as they will when parents suddenly develop amnesia and senselessness to their children’s presence. Without a squawking left hamstring, I could have blocked out ‘booboo’ coos and galumphing kid feet. Not being able to sit in any position without pain like an embedded ice pick, I was distracted to the point of just wanting the meal over—ridiculous in the same way as if I were awarded a trip to Hawaii and just couldn’t stand the smell of coconut sunscreen. I knew I was in a great place, knew I wanted to feel wonderful about it, but, despite myself, I felt crummy and couldn’t help shifting around just trying to get more comfortable.


Now I thought about Fiona.


Nothing about her had looked sore to me.


“She was moving sound and didn’t flinch when I groomed her,” I texted back. “What’s hurting her?”


“Several points along her spine,” came the reply, “and extremely tight hamstrings. Nothing that would test in the pre-purchase exam, but enough to really bother her.”


Both of us have sore hamstrings? Since when is tightness a communicable condition?


“Will be interested to learn how you figured that out,” I wrote back. “Good to find out about these things before they cause bigger problems.”


“I’ll show you when you get here,” she promised, then said Fiona had also been tilting her head and didn’t seem to be able to walk a straight line for being so crooked.


“That’s funny,” I confessed. “I’ve worked with her so much on a circle trying to get her to bend, I haven’t even tried a straight line.”


So far, Fiona’s routine under saddle seemed to be to start quick and stiff, then progress to quick and flexing at times, to more relaxed and bending after about thirty minutes. Because she’d been so unresponsive to rein pressure until minute thirty-one or more, I hadn’t wanted to ride her in a straight line where she could pull against me, preferring the circle work to be able to use body weight and position to keep her turning rather than building speed.


I thought more about pain.


It makes sense to me that pain should be as variable in horses as it is in people. In my own case, for example, I can walk without a problem, swim with only minor twinges depending on the stroke, and can dance without any aggravation. Run more than a few steps, or any faster than a jog, however, and it’s as though I can feel my hamstrings pop, squeeze, then begin to burn like I backed into a stove. As a result, I have nixed running workouts. Racing my nephew in the park, however, is worth every hot spike.


Suppose that Fiona has something similar. Nothing structurally wrong, so a vet wouldn’t catch it doing the typical horse activities of walk and trot, especially if Fiona can look like she’s interested in something that causes her to turn or tilt her head. Little could we know at first that her tilt-and-turn isn’t interest, it’s pain management. Nor would I necessarily pick up on her carriage when I’m focused on trying to relax her out of being stiff: to this amateur rider, stiff and straight is the same problem as stiff and crooked. Either way, I have a resistance I need to supple before I can rate speed or posture.


Now let’s suppose that Fiona, like me, is reactive to her pain only when asked to move certain muscles, or when something (saddle, bridle, my leg) moves against her in just the wrong way. I am nothing like a nephew to her yet. There is no way she could associate the poker of pain with a cost she’d gladly pay. I can immediately see why, if she feels at times the way I have felt, she could only think about escape. Never mind that I’m friendly, never mind that she’s been stabled with access to grass pastures, or that she’s treated to carrots after every ride – if she hurts, she’s looking for the first exit from serene countryside because all she can hear is pain’s needling voice.


I haven’t had to query a horse about discomfort before.

Usually it’s shown up like its own signboard with a lame gait, bloody gash, or side-biting, pawing, sweaty symptoms of colic.


This is more like the old joke, “Does it hurt when I do this?”


If yes, the answer is scripted: “Then don’t do that.”


But ‘not doing’ doesn’t work so well.


Most things are a matter of degree and strength; of testing how much of this can we do before the hurt is prohibitive? Can we change that over time? Or with more support (supplements, acupuncture, rest) and a different routine?


This is a conversation I’ve never had before, especially when the need for it has triggered dangerous behavior. If I were still ten, just learning to develop confidence as a rider, there is no way most trainers would want to keep a horse around that had run backwards. We are a litigious society, and there is also plenty of competition for our discretionary dollars. For completely understandable reasons, wise trainers partner youth riders with proven, reliable mounts, and if they should falter or misbehave, they will get disciplined, possibly drugged to be able to get through ‘something important’ like a show or event, then likely sold with the explanation that this horse needs a more experienced rider. If the horse bucked or kicked, the trainer isn’t advising a kid’s family to stick around to figure out why; they’re just going in the direction of something safer.


My dressage coach is outraged by this culture.


“As a European,” she points out, “I’ll tell you that none of you learn to ride a horse in this country because you’re never given a real horse to ride. You’re given horses that won’t move so no one will get sued.”


I remember the time I was thirteen, and my horse leapt out from the steady trot we’d been maintaining because of a rock clanging into the side of a lawn mower. My trainer made me jab and yank at that horse back and forth along the offending newly-shorn fence line until he was lathered and I was past crying.


“He has to learn he can’t do that to you,” she had shouted.


I don’t think either the horse or I learned much that day except to hate lawnmowers.


The horse went so sore shortly thereafter, we had to sedate him to keep him quiet enough to maintain stall rest.  When he could be ridden again, he was sold to an older rider.


At the time, my family acted on our trainer’s advice. This is, after all, why we pay subject matter experts.


Now that I can look back at that time, I can see that I was taught a certain range of skills to apply to a certain spectrum of horse behaviors. The only way I was to react to events deviating from that norm was to treat them as willful misbehavior and apply smacks, spurs, yanks, pulls or to surrender the horse altogether for the trainer to ‘fix.’


Thirty years on, we’ve all learned a lot more about horses, with a prevalent trend toward reading body language, and making a right decision easier for a horse than a wrong one rather than forcing anything.


Two weeks ago when my trainer had to help me keep Fiona from running me over or dumping me, she sent a corrective message  about manners and safety, but she didn’t beat it in, nor did she re-state the point again and again and again. At the time, she kept me safe, got Fiona under manageable control, and agreed that our place just didn’t bring out Fiona’s best.


Who knows what it was about us there: the separation anxiety on top of her pain, the fit of my saddle, the combination of work to rest creating sore muscles; we won’t ever know.


However, having kept her, Fiona can introduce me to a whole new vernacular, and I am grateful to have my learning assisted by people who believe in dialogue rather than the lash of a fear or dominance-based response. I note that this San Diego barn has no planted pasture whatsoever; it’s groomed dirt or hillside scrub. Maybe in addition to grumpy hamstrings Fiona and I also have some trauma around grass. We’ll surely have no shortage of conversation topics.

Tale Spin

For a minute there, I was living two fairy tales at once; now I feel like I’ve been turned into a frog, dropped far down into a well.


I have ridden horses since I turned six, which will be four decades in just a couple years. Owing to the rigors of ranching, divorce and rebuilding a life on the other side of both of them, I hadn’t bought a horse of my own for over twelve years. It is almost laughable understatement to decide one is ready to add a horse to one’s life, but I had made the assessment, decided it was time, and was reveling in the amount of healing I could claim in order to come to that decision.

A few horses for sale hadn’t worked out; I had looked, or ridden, or both, then decided for veterinary or other reasons, we weren’t a good match. I saw Fiona’s ad on Saturday afternoon; by Sunday morning my trainer and I were on a flight to meet her. I rode her that same day, rode her again Monday and felt I had found the pot of gold at the end of my more-than-a-decade-rebuilding rainbow. This was a horse I could begin again with; one I could learn with; one who would tolerate the flaws and mistakes an amateur rider makes without complaint. Thursday she was vetted; Friday night she arrived at the barn. I trusted my instinct. I trusted my trainer’s chain of contacts who led us to the seller, and the vet known and trusted by both my trainer and the seller, as that vet had worked in both locations. We had asked all the questions, they had disclosed all the information. Everyone had done everything right.

The following Friday the mare lost her mind.

What had been a docile, curious-but-mellow creature was now on the end of my lead rope prancing, snorting, pushing, at times into me, so hysterical as to either not note or not concern herself with my presence. She would have run me over half a dozen times that day had I not moved aside. Lunging in the round pen, I may as well have been the footing for all that she acknowledged me. Her eyes were on stems, ears stuck on their swivels, and body tense as a ratchet strap as she called, screaming, for the herd she had been turned out with that week.

It is the customary care at the barn where I board that all horses are turned out in the morning, then come into their stalls for the afternoon and evening. Mares graze together, younger geldings play together, and older geldings collectively ignore everyone else. Any newcomers are turned out on their own for a few days to get them used to the surroundings before introducing them to the herd. Evidently, in her mind, Fiona was well past introductions, gone straight to committed, and was now acting committable any time we tried to separate her from them.

My trainer took her from me, delivering a firm impromptu lesson as to the expected code of equine conduct, telling me our job as handlers is to be Alpha. “You have to think you’re bigger than she is,” she instructed. I nodded, but I wasn’t sure I could comply.

A YouTube horsemanship search and binge-watch later, I had learned separation anxiety in horses is a thing, often successfully managed with strategic groundwork. So educated, I arrived Sunday, with not a little anxiety of my own. I was at least a few steps into grief for this long-held dream to once again partner with a horse: past the shock, anger, and sadness, now into bargaining. Maybe – maybe – if I could meet her where she was with the groundwork that would communicate what she needed to know from me, we could at least be safe enough together to see if we still had a future.

A friend of mine says it’s the sign of intelligence to be able to hold two contradictory thoughts at the same time. I can’t claim to be Einstein, but I did notice the schism happening in my awareness between the need to approach this horse behavior problem rationally with  patient trial and error, and the visceral and almost total despair that with every shriek and push, this mare was stomping my long-held dream under her frantic feet.

Sometimes the advice to quiet my mind gets the response of a rowdy classroom toward a meek substitute teacher.  Deciding that if I couldn’t shut the opposing voices up, I could at least ignore them, I walked through the mare pasture that Sunday morning praying to everything listening to make both the mare and me receptive to each other.

I got her haltered.

I led her with reminders as to her recent groundwork lesson, but without incident.

She stood to be saddled.

I mounted and rode.

She was lovely.

Relieved, I chastised myself that of course getting to know anything new takes time. I had been foolish to expect a horse to adjust so soon, even more foolish to declare us partners. No one gets to skip steps in any relationship– as I had learned from other horses before this.


Three days later on a day off from the barn, I marched to a trash can to dispose of a doggie bag at a popular trailhead. I was feeling good: Fiona and I had done well together the day before, more improvement and a lot of try evident from both of us. It was a cool morning, a blue desert sky, had been a peaceful hike with my canine bestie brightened further by blooming ocotillo, and a man approached from the other direction, smiling when it was clear we were headed to the same trash can.

I smiled back. He was cute, and tall and muscular…and still smiling.

He asked me about our walk.

I told him.

We talked feet from the trash can in the parking lot for over an hour.


I used to meet people like this. Pre-Covid times when the world was open and people more at ease with proximity, I tended to cross paths and speak to someone just in passing that could turn into a conversation, a walking buddy, a date—the last time had been quite an extraordinary love.

That was three years ago, also on a dog walk. (No trash can.)

I know I’m not alone in feeling that quarantine felt like protracted January: the “always winter and never Christmas” from C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, tinged with the additional sense of having to begin over and over again. More recently, the surge then recession of Omicron had felt like March—and almost matched with the calendar—a windy changeable time when newness is trying to bud but is often driven back to shelter by storms. Now in late April, in every sense, springtime had finally come, the world and me welcoming each other, with flowers and smiles—and a business card with an invitation to be in touch.

I was. As I was leaving town for the weekend, texts flew between us like flights of mating birds, a courtship dance on screens for three days. I could barely sleep at night for the excitement, declaring an embargo on any further suggestive verbiage until such time as I had recovered from sleeplessness, with the exception of this poem I wrote this morning just to let you know, like you needed telling, that this is really exciting. But really, please, we’ve got to knock this off or I won’t be able to function.

He said the exchange had definitely been testing him.

I said I saw no reason for that; things happen in their time and there’s actually no need to rush – I may be enjoying this, but I’m not in a hurry.

Well, about time, and timing, before he met me, he had been dating someone, was around her again just this morning, and felt really conflicted because he had started to develop feelings for her.

I felt as though Fiona had reared—her hooves pawing at my mind.

We all have lines we won’t cross. With horses, mine have to do with safety. Unwillingness is one thing; hysteria is another. The line between them is where I stop feeling I have any business handling the animal. With relationships, I know that once sex starts, seeing others stops, but I was reminded that I also have a feeling line: between admiration and sentiment.

Well, with that information, I need to back way off, I wrote, because I wouldn’t want a partner of mine receiving messages like the ones I’ve been sending you.


He thanked me, acknowledging my respect for her, hoping I felt respected that he told me.

I thanked him for the many smiles.


I understood his point of view – I hadn’t been truly conflicted about two suitors for two decades—my memory of it is that it’s not actually a great situation, as the chances of hurting someone start at one hundred percent with the risk of doubling. I wanted to feel respected, but didn’t really. I would have felt respected four days ago. Now I just felt loss.


A couple days back home and a good deal of sleep later, I decided maybe those four days had been the relationship equivalent of winning a free trip to Hawaii: coming out of nowhere, someplace I was never going to get to stay, so am I really going to be upset that four days wasn’t five or more? It had been gorgeous and exciting and I get to keep that it happened, with all the reassurance that I can attract and be attracted by that magic that can only happen between people.


Maybe it was the equanimity, but the next day Fiona and I had our softest ride yet: a little hitch at the mounting block with her not wanting to go in the opposite direction of the mares, but nothing a second nudge didn’t convince. I felt we had genuinely connected, and marveled that the story line with a quick reversal then brokered reflection had happened twice in two weeks, both with a similar lesson: no beginning guarantees the plot we want. Any beginning is, and can only be, a beginning, not an indicator. Life is just that unpredictable and must be lived into before any kind of conclusion can be drawn, and, even then, we might be surprised.

Friday, the mare once again lost her mind.

This time, not only did she not want me to mount, but facing away from the mares she ducked her head, sidestepping, then shot backward. She could have outpaced crawfish.

My trainer caught up to us, asking if I was OK.

I was OK enough to dismount, which I opted to do, feeling I was well beyond my amateur’s depth of ability to ride a protesting horse.

Fiona backed, sidestepped and tried to rear with my trainer, who informed me, “we’ll be schooling here today – she needs to act like a lady between the pasture and the arena.” Understanding that meant there was no possibility of actual arena work, I removed my helmet and boots and took a seat on a barn bench, feeling my heart distance into grey abstraction.


The twin story arcs bit into my pride like blades, threatening to sever my confidence in instinct, my faith in hope.

Not for the first time, I want to be able to consult the Great Table of Contents in the Sky, to ask “what is, and where are we in, this story? How many more chapters to the good part?”

I can already hear the answer back: “It’s all the good part.”


Two Fridays ago, with the attention of a beautiful horse and a handsome man, things felt better than good. Today I have the urge to stop, put this story aside, outsource finding out what happens next to someone else, feel small inside my warts, croaking to myself about how little we really get to choose in life, allowing myself the occasional swim in the shadows of past dreams.


Except, that story doesn’t feel right.

Acknowledging my bias of being a writer, and an aspiring young adult fiction author, I strongly believe in the power of stories: their ability to transform entropy into purpose, happenstance into perspective. Granted, stories are tricky, as apt to change with the character, and the meaning we assign, as they are to change us with their course (usually an advanced one) in events. Without any expertise in psychology whatsoever, I will venture that entropy, the inability to anticipate what’s next, is the single most destabilizing force to the human psyche. A dim bell from my high school survey course in world religions reminds me that Hindus worship Creation and Destruction as the same God —what happens for good or for ill happens for reasons beyond us, and perhaps the only healthy response we can make to that level of unpredictability is to acknowledge that most of life is well beyond our control, with the exception of our response.

I could tell myself a story about what’s been happening here —that these events were sent to teach me something—that the gods of horsemanship and courtship are demanding tribute of my visions for myself before they will reveal their gifts to me—or that all of this is one universal wild card lesson in acceptance—but I think the truth is that any storytelling I attempt could only be fiction because the story is still in play.

A writing teacher advised me once that we should only write about material that is at least ten years old, because otherwise it’s simply too close to us to describe well.

With ruptured instincts and my heart in a sling, I don’t know that I need ten years, but I’d be well advised to take a minute. Especially since the other thing we usually get to choose is the timing of our response.

So, I’ll wait—just as long as it takes until I find one worthy of a story I’d want to hear again.




Why Horses?

I was asked recently what I love the most about horses, and, for the first time, I was mute on the subject. Horses have been part of my life since I was six years old, which was not yesterday. They are not just my favorite animal, they are my favorite place, my favorite smell, my favorite sound, my lottery dream, except that all those things are external, and horses have long been part of my soul, even part of my identity. To have to name an aspect of them that I most delight in would be like trying to find the brightest spark in a fireworks show, or the most resonant note in a song.

Horses are perhaps the most emotionally powerful for me when I look at them as metaphors for humanity. They are beautiful creatures deprived of their freedom to train at an early age, so that they may serve masters often less intelligent or capable than they, then saddled with burdens their entire lives. The willing and gentle are rewarded. The unruly are disciplined; sometimes broken. Few get to do what they were born for. At any time, they could buck the system, turn themselves loose, run wild and dangerously free, except that they would likely starve or be hunted. There are too few safe and open spaces to feed and shelter a wild and unruly spirit of human, let alone one horse size.

And yet – despite how they’re confined – think of what they accomplish. They leap, dance, race, spin, herd, chase, flex, stretch, listen, sense, squeal, snuffle, teach, befriend, settle and doze. They sleep standing and take little lying down. They announce the approach of storms, fire and earthquake, but never speak, never whine. At most they will call to one another.

They are as silent as I was when I tried to answer my friend; tied to find something brief I could say to respond to his question.

I would have done better to do as they might: shake my mane with a sigh and a snort, chewing on the verbal inquiry as just another of people’s oddities while turning to regard my questioner with full and direct focus, patiently waiting for the request of a favor that inevitably follows human interest.

That I came to that realization later, instead of in the moment, is one of the reasons I hope to keep learning from horses for a long time. Were you to ask any of them currently under my care, I’m sure they’d tell you I have all the makings of a perpetual student.