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Breakfast With Mama - part 17
By Kathy Johnson, Executive Director, MHP
Rocky Mountain Serengeti
It was a long walk back to the foal barn where Mama lived. With my new decision to approach Mama on a different level, more slowly, more grounded, I began to take my time making the transition from house to barn. Chilly weather required a few more layers of clothes. Layering took longer, and alerted Jolson, my ever present Corgi, that I would be leaving. When he turned his liquid brown eyes on me and danced to his toy chest, I knew I would not be leaving without a few rounds of fetch. No matter how much of a hurry I was in, I spent the time with him in the cold morning air, tossing his squeaky toy as hard and far as I could. When it was done, we both felt better.
On Thanksgiving morning, it dawned brilliantly cold and sunny, about 10 degrees, thankfully windless. On Thanksgiving and Christmas mornings, I had the best job in the world. Everyone had the day off, and I had the privilege of feeding all the horses, to spend some quiet time with each of them, alone in the barns. There was no more joyful job, as hungry horses were the most, thankful, grateful customers a person could want.
I started the walk down the driveway, where the great vistas of the Rocky Mountains greeted me. Some mornings it looked like a view of the Serengeti. I stopped and took in the sunrise reflected off of the clouds. I pulled cold air in my lungs and watched as the steam came out. Then I moved between the Program Barn and the Boarder Barn, where I was greeted by the hungriest and friendliest of the horses. Whinnies poured forth, and I recognized the horses by their calls, Bram T, remarkably high and plaintive for a giant Friesian, my old Andalusian Chicho, his cry wild and wooly and always accompanied by a bang of his feed bin, as if I could forget him. Starlight rumbled low and loud, in a deep throaty voice. Frisco, the young Appaloosa, would rear up, and set both feet in his metal trough, then pound his hooves, sounding for all the world like war drums.
When I turned the corner to the Boarder Barn, the calls got even more raucous, like a bunch of frat boys. The horses trotted in from their runs, pawed their stall doors, and rattled their feed buckets, all in the hopes that I would feed them first. Old friends who lived side by side, who went out together every day, became impatient and food territorial, lunging over their stalls to scare off their neighbors. This startled the pigeons, who flew with a clatter, the wind from their wings sometimes brushing my face. The bravest pigeons stayed close and waited to pick up grain the horses dropped.
We called the grain room "the Witch's Kitchen." Beet pulp heated in a tub steamed like a caldron. Mysterious bottles and packages on the shelves contained a trove of herbs, medicines and supplements with optimistic names like Rescue Remedy, Equi-pride and Royal Champion. Long-winded scientific formulas were shortened to bute , ace and tri-meth. When I opened the tins that kept the grains safe from mice, the warm smell of molasses, oats, corn and barley reminded me of trips to the small town Co-op when I was young. Farmers sat on hay bales and talked about the weather, while I, a horse crazy, but horseless kid, walked among the bags of feed and coveted the sleek horses gracing the covers of the sacks. And now, equally sleek and beautiful horses graced the barn where I lived and worked.
Carefully, I measured the feed from the bins, consulting the white board that listed each horse, his allocated proportions and designated feed. Young horses got Junior, old horses got Senior and those in the middle got Safe Performance. Horses with sensitive stomachs got carb free feed. Horses hard to hold weight got high fat feeds. I used premeasured scoops, preparing each meal with a pound of this, a cup of that and a pinch of something other.
As I passed through each barn distributing their breakfasts, quiet ensued. The horses settled peacefully at their troughs. The stomping, the nickering, the in-fighting were replaced by deep sighs of happiness, and the contented rhythmic chewing of hay. And I walked from barn to barn, knowing that every horse was safe, sound and well-fed.
By the time I arrived at the foal barn, I looked and smelled like a walking grain room. Hay bristled from my coat, beet pulp dripped from my sleeves, and sweet feed stuck to my gloves. No wonder the horses greeted me with whickers, nuzzles and licks.
Once more, I went back to the beginning with Mama. I made her the mush she loved so much. While she ate, I took my time and went back to the whip rather than the rope. I started at her front end and stroked her neck, chest and front legs. She was surprisingly still. I had switched back from something large and new, the rope, to something smaller and more familiar, the whip. For the first time, Mama stood like a rock while the whip touched her hindquarters. She stood still when I ran the whip down her hind legs. For the first time, I touched both hind legs with the whip. She did not lash out. Somehow, without really trying, I made huge progress. Or maybe it was because I wasn't trying.
I remembered how much Mama enjoyed having her mane unknotted in the beginning. I returned to her mane. She stood so quietly, I decided to try to braid her. When a horse had a long mane, it was easier to keep it braided than to constantly fuss with it and try to keep the wind knots out. I twisted great strands of long black hair, rough and corded like my hands. I pulled them into three even sections and began to braid. I was creating my own wind knots, or more accurately creating orderly knots out of chaos.
I sectioned evenly, careful not to pull too tight as I would braiding for a horse show. My hands got cold and stiff. My braiding slowed. I had no idea what Mama would think of this new activity. She continued to eat quietly. I twisted and turned the hanks of hair, twisted and turned. Before I knew it, I had four long braids. I tied them off with rubber bands. Mama gave her head a shake, as if to say, "What's this?" And that was it. She bumped her feed bin and asked for more hay. She looked beautiful.
Because there was feed left, I spent the rest of the time just feeding her. I held her bucket for her and stroked her face. Her winter coat was iridescent, each red hair lit as if by fire. I stroked the white star on her forehand, moved in to the perfect spiral in the middle, called a whorl in horseman's terms. Many myths surrounded this spot on the horse's head. When I was a child growing up, an old horseman named Harold told me his theory of the spiral. According to Harold, where the whorl was located predicted the horse's attitude and performance. Too high on the head meant a spooky, flighty horse, too low a stubborn one, too many whorls, double and even triple whorls meant a crazy horse.
Over the years, working with so many horses, I had seen some truth to the legend. A horse with a whorl too high often had eyes too close together and too small. Perhaps because of a limited vision, that horse might be more spooky than a horse with wide-set eyes. Since my days of learning from Harold, the old horse trader, books had been published discussing the relationship between number and placement of whorls, and every aspect of the horses' behavior. A recent study even indicated that left and right handedness could be determined based on which direction the whorl spiraled. Left-handed horses tended to counterclockwise whorls, right-handed horse whorls tended to turn clockwise and those with radial spirals were more even handed, or even hoofed, to be accurate.
Mama's one spiral was fairly centered between her eyes, indicating intelligence and willingness, and spiraled clockwise, for what that was worth.
In many ancient cultures, the spiral denoted life's journey, ever changing, ever the same, a cosmic force. The spiral occurred naturally in plants unfurling, in seashells, galaxies, tornadoes, hurricanes, whirlpools, whirlwinds and in the whorl on every horse's forehand. In Jungian analysis, the spiral represented development. "The spiral moves away from the original place to another, yet it always returns to the same place, but just a fraction above, always moving away and always coming to the same. Sameness, non-sameness. So the spiral is really a very apt symbol to express development" (Jung).
I thought of the spiral path Mama and I had already come, circling, spinning, wheeling, turning, shadowing the falcon's gyre. As I stroked the perfect spiral on her forehand, I thought about how often we kept starting over, coming back to the beginning. But each beginning was different, and each time I started over, she showed me how far she had come. The spiral was an apt symbol of progress and development for Mama and me. But my favorite spiral symbol was from those cultures, like the Chickasaw, in which the spiral represented the wind. And so, Mama, like every horse, carried the mark of the wind on her high, proud brow.
Chapter Index - Don't Miss The Other Episodes
Breakfast With Mama copyright 2011, 2012, Kathy Johnson
Photos copyright 2011, 2012, Tony Johnson
We are proud to announce that Mama found not just one, but THREE sponsors at our annual Benefit. The Macmillan Family of Boulder, Colorado, Kathryn Coon of Ann Arbor, Michigan and Tricia Brown and her horse, Rockabilly of Tennessee, all contributed to sponsor Mama so that she can continue to do her work at Medicine Horse Program. We are also thrilled to announce that Mama's daughter, Sasha, has found a sponsor. Anne Heyes of Boulder is sponsoring the mustang filly.