One Mustang directly off the range, One Trainer, Many Students, Communication through body language, Tools used only for safety, never to train
To discover how far Equestrian Art can be developed solely using body language.
The Cost of Freedom
Green grass, knee-high, in meadows of scattered ponderosa leading to rocky hillsides and scablands, leading to more meadows and then down into wet valleys with babbling brooks, and then up again.
Cleo and I, along with Cam and Antheia were traveling the mountain sides of Ochoco National Forest helping with the wild-horse survey. We had been riding for a couple of hours, following a rough circle through our designated area. We were seeing stud piles of manure with fresh leavings on the top and we knew there were horses somewhere around us, but the area is vast and we were only two. It felt like a band of horses could easily be hiding on the hillside above us and watching us pass by without us knowing at all.
The countryside was beautiful and the horse I was riding, Cleo, felt spectacular. She is a mountain horse like nothing I have ever ridden. Up hills, down hills, over logs and scrambling over loose rocks. We covered some of the steepest territory I have ever traveled on a horse and Cleo made it all feel as easy as flat ground.
Here we were, back in Oregon wild horse country for the first time since Cleo had been rounded up six years ago. She had spent two years in the corrals in Burns, OR and then four years with me learning to be a domestic horse. I had no idea how she was going to feel about being out here again.
Because of a substantial scar on her coronet band and corresponding sizable quarter crack that her hoof grows out with, Cleo is not a good candidate for the freedom of a wild horse. Without the proper trimming and protection she has a tendency to tear a quarter of her hoof off at times and then spend three months in rehab before she can walk comfortably again. Out in the wild where a herd needs to travel for miles to find food and water, a weakness like that leads to a very short life.
I know all this in my logical mind, yet heading out across the land on our first day I could feel Cleo pulling for the wild. She was alive and alert like I have never felt her before and the group of horses we were riding with had no draw for her, nor did the camp or trailer or the base we had set up for our temporary home. She asked me again and again to let her head out away from the others, away from camp and into the wild. Each time I corrected her path and brought her attention back to the group and back to our chosen route, my heart broke a little for her. The cost of freedom would be too high for her. Here was I, this human, making the decisions for her, keeping her safe and trapped in domestic life, yet who was I to make that decision for her?
Quality of life, length of life, how do we weigh these as priorities, or problem solve to allow for some of both? How do I take it upon myself to decide Cleo has a better life at my beck and call than as her own master, making her own life decisions?
I find myself faced with these dilemmas every time I spend time around horses that get to live wild and free. Their freedom seems so idyllic, yet I know I am seeing them in summer season when food and water are easy.
I know I am seeing them in numbers managed by people to adapt to the fact that cows and sheep graze this land along with the horses and all the other wildlife. The ones that are too many are brought in for adoption, like Cleo was, and there are far more horses that need homes than there are people looking to bring them into domestication.
The cost of freedom is complicated.
Cam and Antheia were riding ahead when I heard Cam say, “Look, horses!” Our horses have clearly spotted them, necks arched, ears pricked. Cam sees them and I am searching. “Look straight-ahead between the two tall trees, you can see a brown rump with a short tail.” And then finally, with such direct help from my daughter, I can see them.
“Three, no four, no look – there are six!” And then we spot the seventh. One looks young, yearling maybe? Boys? Girls?
They move away from us down the dirt track through the woods and we cautiously follow. Cleo, who was so eager to get out in the wild, seems all of a sudden not sure we should get any closer to this band. Antheia on the other hand is so excited wanting to go introduce herself, Cam has her hands full stopping her and waiting every time the herd stops and turns around to watch us.
From what we can see, at least four of them are stallions, and we figure it must be a band of bachelors. Here we are on our two mares – how safe is this?
The two younger looking colts start walking toward us, and then change their minds and run after the older ones walking off into the meadow. I feel better about watching them now.
I can’t help looking at Cleo, this magnificent horse I get to ride, and wondering what her life might have been like. She could have had a family of her own and an intricate social life I can only begin to imagine.
She could have… but the risk was too high for her. There were too many reasons that freedom was denied her from her personal hoof injury, to the fact that someone decided that her herd area didn’t have enough food for her and all the others that needed it too, to the fact that I think I needed her help in my life.
Cleo is my rock and my steady place. When emotions crash like storms around me I can lean on her, and interestingly she asks the same of me. We make each other’s lives better; we both give up a little of our personal freedom to take care of each other.
Is that fair to ask of a horse? I struggle with that every time I am out in the wilderness watching horses who only give up personal freedoms for other horses. What we ask of them as people – is it worth enough to give up the lives they might have without us?
The question is more complicated than I can fully answer, but I guess that is what makes it worth asking and pondering.
What do we give up in terms of freedom in order to fill our lives with relationships?
What qualities of life do relationships bring us that we couldn’t find on our own?
What do we give up in terms of relationships in order to feel free?
How much can we have of both?
Of the horses I saw and heard about this weekend, why do sixty-nine of them choose to all be close together in the lush valley, a complicated mix of stallions and mares and babies, while the seven stallions we saw choose each other and stay higher up on the hill side? Why does one horse decide to shun the company of other horses and live with the herd of cows instead, or one stallion decide to separate out a filly seemingly far too young and keep her away from the others until she is old enough and then they become a family – mare, stallion and foal.
How much actual choice is involved in these life decisions, and how much freedom do any of these horses actually feel? They are more free than Cleo living in domestic life with me, but they don’t have the security she has.
I don’t have the answers, only the questions.
What I find most interesting are the feelings underlying the questions. How much freedom can any one of us feel while enjoying the quality of life that comes with community, relationship and partnership.
Every day I thank my horses, Cleo and Myrnah and Zohari, for helping me think about it. They make my life better, and I hope I do the same for them.
Hooves and Heartbeats,