It was 4:30 when I arrived at the barn. The light of the day was already draining away. Cyra and Teddy were both in the barn waiting for their dinner. I expected that Cyra would object to my request for a ride. This was out of pattern for both of us. Our routine is to ride early in the morning. I could not remember the last time I had asked her for a ride at dusk. I was wrong. Cyra accepted her riding halter willingly.
When I led her to the mounting block I feared that we would not have enough light left in the day to ride safely. With Mocha trotting beside us, we headed up Woodman Road towards the trail head to Big Falls. I had ridden in the woods earlier in week and was confident that Cyra could handle the snow cover. When we reached the trail head I expected Cyra to object to my choice. Again, I was wrong. The last time we had ridden here was after the big rainstorm some weeks back. Then it was the middle of the day with full sun. The falls had been spectacular, made even more so because I saw them from Cyra’s back.
We headed into the dusk woods with Mocha leading the way. While the light was still fading, we still had enough to see the trail. Though the light was dim it was also beyond magical, it was mystical. It was the time of day when the boundary between this world and the world of the spirits is very thin. Cyra was handling the fading light and snow cover with easy confidence. I kept losing Mocha in the dark recesses of the woods. She would reappear if I gave her my two note whistle. While I frequently did not know where she was when we are out in the woods, I know she always knows where we are. I have not lost her yet.
We passed the 1947 Plymouth coupe, its rusty hulk now covered in snow. We headed down the hill to the banks of Meadow Brook. When last here, it was a leaping torrent. Now it was a dimly visible bumpy aberration in the forest floor with occasional windows of whispering water.
When we headed into the pines I wondered if this was a good idea. It was now quite dark. The tall pines with their interwoven canopy blocked out what light that might try to reach us. The light of day was rapidly giving way to the cloak of night. When we reached Big Falls it presented a very different image from the scene at our last visit. Then the icy rocks were being pounded by a large volume of water from a recent storm. Now the falls were silent. The cascading water had been locked in place by cold January nights. It was difficult to even pick out details of the scene I had witnessed many times before.
On Cyra, with Mocha running along behind, I marveled at how blessed I was to be able to share these adventures with my four footed friends. When we emerged back on to Woodman Road and were headed back to the barn, we had become one with the transition from day to night.
As I was riding on Woodman Road this morning, headed back to the barn, I glanced down at the road. I saw our tracks from a ride we took over the weekend. Then the ground was soft. The tracks were deep. Now they were frozen in the dirt of the road. Seeing those tracks made me think of the commitment I made at the beginning of December to ride as often as possible. Its taken me twenty years with Cyra, my Clydesdale-cross mare, to realize that taking a ride can be as simple as slipping her riding halter on, taking a look at her feet then hopping on bareback and riding away.
In the past when my work centered around horses (I co-founded and helped run an Equine Assisted Psychotherapy practice for six years), I rode Cyra to work. She had her own client base who she interacted with every week. In between work days we typically did not ride much. I would occasionally meet up with riding buddies and ride on the weekends. That was a very hit and miss affair. When the practice was on break for our vacations, I might not ride at all for days on end.
I am retired now. I ride because while in past I focused my horse life to benefit others, I now ride because being on Cyra with Mocha, my English Shepard, running along is my medicine. It is what keeps me mentally and physically healthy. Put simply, it feeds my soul. It does not matter how many times I throw my leg over Cyra’s back, every time is a thrill and a challenge.
It is thrill because I am never really sure what awaits us as we head out. It does not matter how many times I travel the same roads or trails, every ride is different. It is a challenge because sitting on top of a thousand plus pound living being with her own strong opinions about life requires focus, strength (physical and mental) and patience. In the two decades we have been a team, I have continually learned new things about my equine friend.
Cyra has an eagle feather attached to her riding halter. It is never still as we make our way out into the world. Even though most of our rides are at a gentleman’s walk, I still feel like I am flying above the Earth Mother from my perch on Cyra’s back. Since I began this new phase of our journey together on the first of December, I have ridden forty-nine times. I am nearly sixty-nine. Cyra is somewhere around twenty. I figure we have a solid ten years together before one of us gives out. I look forward to many more times when I glance down to find we have been this way before.
The woods outside my windows, Began to transition from velvet night, To a new day covered in snow. Muted tones of brown and needle greens contrasted, With the brilliance of the gift of new snow. Going out Mocha signaled her joy. By rolling in the downy covering. Fat flakes covered my shoulders and head, As I slid back the big barn door. Cyra was standing in her stall, Beseeching me with patience, For her morning grain. My love for her poured from my soul, Into her different colored big soft eyes. I slipped her riding halter, Over her big shaggy head. I led her to the mounting block, Already covered in a deep layer of snow. As we made our way down the drive, I saw that the town plow had not been by. Two tracks from a morning commuter, Were all that greeted us on Woodman Road. It would have been a day for horse and sleigh, Cyra’s round tracks would have no companion, Parallel runner tracks was not for this day. With radiant joy Mocha was positively aglow. Silence was our companion until, The sound of two winged beings, Greeted our ears as we walked. A crow caw and the drone of an airplane, Made me wonder at their choice of flight, On this very stormy winter’s day. Turing at the new house perched on the marsh, I headed home with snow now coming into my face. I felt little bursts of cold joy, As each flake landed on my warm skin. Nearing the barn we heard Teddy’s cry. A pleading tone expressed his sadness. We’re almost home Teddy I whispered. With confidence in Cyra’s studded shoes, We picked up a trot to end out this morning, When we got out before the plow.
Cyra’s studded shoes crunched on the ice as we made our way down the barn driveway. Behind us Teddy let out a whinny to express his despair at being left behind. When we reached the marsh, I could just hear the water of Meadow Brook as it flowed under the ice.
The damp air carried the sounds of the turnpike miles to our west. A single crow called off to the east. Mocha ran parallel to us in the fields to our left. I could hear the whisper of her passage over the crusty snow. We passed a house where I could hear the barking of a dog inside, alerting her mistress as to our presence.
I could no longer see Mocha so I called to her. I was between two houses facing each other on opposite sides of the road. My voiced echoed off the houses in my calling Mocha. Far out of sight and out of sight in the clouds a twine engine prop plane passed over us.
We turned around at the new house overlooking the Thurston Wildlife Marsh. I could ducks calling from the still open water of the marsh. One of Cyra’s hooves slipped on hard ice and made a skittering sound until the studs caught on the frozen dirt of the road.
Cyra sneezed startling me out of my moving meditation. Blue jays called from a grove of poplars to our right. I could hear the tires of an approaching car before I could see it coming from the direction of the barn. The sound of a big rig using its air breaks on a road far bigger and busier that the one Cyra, Mocha and I were on.
The rattling sound of the town dump truck and its plow rig came from behind us just as I spotted a school bus coming towards us. The School bus turned into Durham Road. It did not pass us. The town truck slowed down and waited for us to turn in at The Blackburn farm. I saw that Hannah’s car was running and heard her say, “Good morning Michael” as Cyra and I passed her sitting in her car.
As we neared the barn, Teddy let out a plea for our return. I clucked my tongue. Cyra picked up a brisk trot. The sound of her footfalls changed with her upward transition of gait. I dismounted. I scratched her neck as a thank you. I led her into the aisle of the barn.
Her studded shoes made a grinding sound as she walked on the cement floor of the barn. We passed into a stall onto the rubber mats. The sound of her hooves changed again to a muted whisper. I untied her halter. I slipped it off her shaggy head. I gave her one more scratch before she walked out of the barn into the barnyard.
I went down to the barn at approximately 7:00 am. It was not quite day yet but it was also no longer night. As I neared the barn, the heady aroma of large animals came to me in the cold winter air. Mocha was bounding through the new eight inches of snow to keep up with me. Cyra and her barn mate, Teddy, were out in the pasture. They were standing in the small stand of pine trees at the far side of the pasture. I grabbed Cyra’s riding halter and trudged through the new snow to get to them.
I gave Cyra’s shaggy neck a strong scratch before I slipped the rope halter over her nose. I noticed to my dismay that her forelock and leg feathers were full of burrs. Walking back to the barn with her I resolved not to take her out for our New Year’s ride until I had removed the burrs from her hair. When we entered the barn aisle with its concrete floor, Cyra’s studded shoes crunched on the hard surface. Mocha trotted after us, barking at Cyra to let her know she was herding her into the barn.
I pulled apart the burrs with my fingers as Cyra stood patiently, enjoying her hand grooming. I finished off my chore with a mane and tail brush, swept up the aisle and led my friend out of the barn and to the mounting block. I had added last year what I call my Senior Risers to the mounting block. These consist of 4×4’s attached to the bottom of the block. Because Cyra is so short (not technically a horse, she is a draft pony), getting on her is a joy. I always ride her bareback so when standing on the top stair of the block I actually am higher that her back. It makes this old man smile every time I get on her.
Walking down the driveway, I gave her a choice at the end to go either left away from the public road or right towards Intervale Road. She chose right. Mocha danced along side of us on her own adventure. The sky was a brilliant blue with the just rising sun about to clear the trees. The morning sun made the newly fallen snow a blinding white as we crunched down the road. Cyra was alert but a willing participant in our new year’s adventure. When we neared the Blackburn Homestead, she decided to turn in for a visit. No one was out as it was still early. We left our tracks to give them clues as to our visit.
When we returned to Woodman Road and neared the Bolduc’s driveway, Cyra became agitated and attempted to turn to go home. Having a physical “discussion” with a thousand pound plus animal while on her back is an interesting challenge. First comes strength and next comes patience. With considerable force (no bit in her mouth so all pressure is on her nose) I hauled on the reins to head her back in the direction we were originally headed. I asked her to stand. I took several deep breaths. I waited. After what seemed an appropriate amount of time, I soothingly asked her to walk on. She had shifted in her mind to accept my agenda and off we set.
With no more complaints from my partner, we made our way past the Thurston Wildlife Marsh and up the rise overlooking the marsh. Cyra continued to show interest in every driveway we passed but did no more “dancing” in the road. When a vehicle approached us, I called “Over” to Mocha and she trotted to our side and sat when asked. In a stand of poplars, we heard blue jays talking to each other. The low dawn sun cast a long shadow of Cyra and me on the white road. I, like Cyra, rode with awareness. My motto in riding is “Loose and Light”. Loose on the reins and light on her back. Combined with an awareness of her body language and the world around us, we did OK.
When we got to the Pierce Farm, we turned into their barn road, turned around and headed home at a trot. Trotting bareback requires one stay as centered as possible. The movement transmitted from a moving thousand pound animal is considerable. With no stirrups to ground the rider, he or she must find a place of balance that is kind to one’s mount and keeps the rider over the horse’s core. The temptation is to clench one’s thighs but this prevents the rider from finding a physical harmony with the horse. It is a workout for both of us but great fun too. I let her choose her transition, coming down into as walk when she was ready. We would walk for a hundred yards or so. I would cluck my tongue and of we would set off at a fast clip. Mocha “Dog Trotted” beside us.
When we got to Durham Road we slowed our pace to a relaxed walk. I closed my eyes. I let the reins go slack. Cyra knew the way home. There would be no more trotting. She was not so anxious to get home that I could trust her not to bolt for the barn (she has never done that). I trusted her to take me home safely. I counted her strides for a while as a sort of moving meditation. I let that go and just relaxed into the movement of Cyra’s body. I felt when she turned into the barn driveway. I opened my eyes. We were home. We had seen in the new year and new decade just as I had hoped. I felt so blessed. Michael Fralich Norumbega Farm
We had gone a slightly different and longer route for our morning outing. We turned right instead of left out of the barn driveway. Cyra’s steel spiked shoes crunched on the frozen dirt of Woodman Road. Up the Cider House Road we went, and then into the pine stand on the corner of Woodman Road and Meadow Lane. Cyra’s shoes now landed on the frozen duff of the forest floor. Mocha’s paw whispered in the light coating of snow on the ground.
Our morning ramble took us along the ridge overlooking the orchard and the now empty hog house. The winter sun was a brighter spot in the otherwise gray sky. Passing the Cider House we entered the woods once again riding to and then over Ben’s Bridge below our parent’s chapel. Cyra’s shoes bit into the wooden deck. A crow called in the distance. A woodpecker hammered out a morning tattoo in search of bugs on a tree we could not see. Mocha drifted in and out of our sight lines as she did her own exploring of Norumbega’s woods.
Snaking our way through the forest, Cyra suddenly stopped. I had not asked her to stop. This was her choice. This rarely happens. I was in no hurry. I did not ask her to walk on. Instead, I stilled myself as well. I watched her as she watched and listened to the woods. I could not see anything or hear anything that would have caught her attention and caused her to stop. She was not nervous. Her winter fuzzy ears moved around as if to catch the sound of something only she could hear. Her big head slowly drifted from side to side, sweeping the view from where she stood. Mocha was nowhere to be seen. Curious, I let her stand until she decided she had had enough of stillness and was ready to end her reverie and move on. I can only guess what she was thinking. I savored our stillness until she decided to resume our walk.
I could not say how long we paused to stand in the quiet woods. In retrospect, I am sure the sense of duration has taken on more than the reality. What I do know is that in choosing to stop, Cyra reminded me of my need to stop and really see the world around be. That she had only done this a handful of times in our nearly twenty years together added importance to her equine communication to me.
We reemerged onto Woodman Road. We walked down to the grassy verge surrounding Talking Brook. As was our pattern, we picked up a canter for the last fifty yards before coming back to a walk to climb the slope of the icy driveway. We always find magic together on our morning rides ( I have ridden twenty mornings in December so far ) but this morning reminded me that there is always new magic to be discovered when one slows down to listen….Micheal Fralich Norumbega Farm
I am sixty-six years old. I have had many jobs in my working life. For all of those jobs there was a commute. On a few occasions I have lived close enough to my job to walk to work. Those were times I lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts and my walks to work were city walks full of the sights sounds and smells associated with city life.
I once lived in Brookline also in Massachusetts and had a job as a landscaper in Newton. I rode my bike to work to that job. For this commute I had to stay very focused on my surroundings as I shared the road with many cars. That wasn’t as pleasant as my walking commute but it was still outside and I still was a part of the world around me. As such I could still see, hear and smell what the world had to offer.
For a time here in Maine where I now live, I commuted to work on my motorcycle. This still allowed me to be a part of the world I was passing through even though I was now traveling at the same speed as the cars around me. On a motorcycle the rider can still smell and hear things that would not be possible to experience while traveling in a car.
Then of course for years I also commuted in a car. In a car the driver is passing through the world and is not as much as a part of that world as one would be on foot, bike or on a motorcycle. Now at the end of my working life, I have a job that involves horses. My mare is an active participant in the work that I do. I now commute to work by horse.
I live in rural Maine in a town of under five thousand people. The town is New Gloucester. All of the roads around our three hundred acres are dirt. I have seven miles of trails on my own land. I work at an equine assisted psychotherapy practice at a farm approximately one mile from where I live. If I am short on time, I can ride on the road and be at work in about twenty minutes, fifteen if I ask my mare, Cyra, to trot and canter part of the way.
When I am efficient in doing my morning chores, I leave between forty-five minutes and an hour for my commute. This allows me to thread my way through the woods and fields between where I live and where I work. This alternate route puts me on a road for only about fifty feet. My favorite back-co
untry commute takes me deep into our woods. I cross a stream, several stone walls, slog through muddy stretches of trail, over a wooden bridge I built with my son and then pick up an old abandoned county road that gives us multiple opportunities to canter if we so choose. The forest looms over us forming a green tunnel through which we pass.
We occasionally see deer on these rides as well as wild turkeys, ruffed grouse and many squirrels and sometimes woodchucks. We have heard coyotes talking to each other off in the distance. We are always serenaded by numerous birds whose homes we are passing through. At the end of our ride, we come out of the woods and pick up a trail that takes us along the edge of a fifty acre hay field that is now lush with soon to be harvested grass and clover. Here we exchange a green canopy of leaves for a blue often cloud studded dome of sky. These rides are rich in sights, smells, sounds and tactile stimulation as we frequently brush by and under branches of trees. I ride Cyra bareback and so am in intimate contact with her body as it moves under me. She has a very full mane and I frequently grab two handfuls of her hair for stability if we are cantering or going over rough terrain or up a hill.
For a lifelong horseman, these rides are a dream come to life. It never gets old being on Cyra deep in the quite peace of the forest. In winter, our work keeps us at the farm after dark. On moonless nights we make our way home either under a dome of stars or on cloudy nights in darkness so black that the road is a barely discernible gray line stretching out in front of us. On nights with a moon we slide into the woods in the gray moonlight. In the woods, the ethereal light is just enough to find our way. In the fields I feel like We are bathing in light so different than that of day that magic always seems close at hand.
I have to close this reflection with praise for my equine partner. We have been a team for over ten years. She trusts me. I trust her. She knows the way to work and often I will drop the reins of the rope riding halter I made for her (no bit in her mouth) and let her take me where she knows we need to go. I sometimes ride with my Native American flute, playing tunes from my heart to the world we are passing through. I know that I can do this and trust that we are OK with her on auto-pilot (who needs a self driving car when one has a self driving horse?).With Cyra I have come to a place in my life that fits me so well that I have to pinch myself at times to know that this is real. I am a very lucky man.
It has been many months since I have sat at my computer to reflect on my life at Norumbega Farm. Much has transpired since I last wrote. It would be futile to attempt to summarize what has transpired since my last entry. The cycle of the seasons marches ever forward whether or not we pause to take note of the passage of time. What I can say that I have done with more discipline than I have mustered for my writing is to daily try to change the way that I view the passage of time.
Over a year ago I was introduced to a teacher of meditation by the name of Andy Pudicomb. A Brit who has studied Tibetan Buddhism for years, Pudicomb took his vows to become a Buddhist monk and resided in Buddhist monastery before coming to the realization that he wanted to share what he had learned with people outside of his world of fellow monks. He moved back to the United Kingdom and created an app for users of smart phones called Headspace.
Through this app subscribers can choose many customized guided meditation “packs” to address areas of struggle in their lives. Examples include but are not limited to: balance, stress, depression, anxiety, self-esteem etc. The Headspace subscriber chooses the pack he or she wishes to focus on, chooses the length of the session and then hopefully incorporates the meditation into a daily practice. Andy guides the student through the process also leaving space in each session for silence.
A fair question to ask of me would be how this meditation practice has changed the way I view the passage of time. The answer is both simple and complicated at the same time. The simple answer springs from the root of Andy’s teaching and in fact the root of all meditation practice, mindfulness. Simply put, mindfulness is the awareness of the present moment to the exclusion of all other moments, past and anticipated. When practiced successfully, the past falls away and the future does not exist. The current moment is all that exists.
The complications arise from the fact that we human beings find it very difficult to “turn off” our thinking brains and truly inhabit only what is currently happening in each precious moment. With Andy’s guidance, I have found a pathway to glimpse the possibility of this amazing ability to truly just be where I am without analyzing how my past has brought me there or where I might be going in the next moment. I do this by focusing on my breath.
We all have to breath to live. Our bodies do this for us. We do not have to think about it. It just happens as an automatic system to keep us alive. Rarely had I taken the time to observe my breath and use it as a tool to combat the spinning of my overactive brain. Now that I have this simple but powerful tool in my possession, I am able to slow down my thoughts, put aside my past, not fret about my next task and just relish what my life is experiencing right now. Time takes on a new meaning when there is only “right now.”
Of course I will never master completely this way of being. I would not choose to if I could. There are times when my past should inform my present. There are times when the future must be planned for. What I do strive for is a way of being in my journey that does give me the ability to truly be present for the magic that happens in every moment of my life if I am but awake to see it.
With Andy’s guidance I can stop time and just be a witness to the wonderful mystery that is my life.
I have been a horseman since I was a teenager. I began my riding at a resort in Virginia called The Greenbriar. I had gone there with my family. I don’t remember much about that first ride other than my horse sneezed when I was in the saddle. It scared me to the point of never wanting to get back on a horse again. Fortunately, that did not happen. I went onto ride in many places during my youth and later as a young man in my twenties. When we were first married and living in Boston I would travel out to Concord to ride out of a barn there. I gained the trust of the barn’s owner and was given permission to fetch an horse and go on my own on the trails in the adjacent countryside. I rode a Belgian mare whose name escapes me now but the memory of our rambles lives on.
We did a spell in Ann Arbor when I went back to college at the University of Michigan. There I leased a horse at a barn in Hell (small town near Ann Arbor, not the legendary Hades). Again my mount’s name escapes me but I do recall that he was prone to spooking at anything white that we came across on our rides. It could be a discarded fridge or even a scrap of paper by the trail but he never failed to think he was about to be eaten by a monster and would launch himself sideways with no warning. I learned to be ever vigilant for all things white.
Fast forward to the present day. I now am the owner of two horses. Cyra, my mare, is a cross between a Clydesdale and a Newfoundland pony. She looks like a miniature Clydesdale but in fact is small enough to be still technically a pony. I also own a gelding by the name of PJ who is 16 hand Tennessee Walker. It is an interesting pairing, the pony and the big rangy gelding but I love them both very much for the very reason that they are so different and provide me with very different riding experiences. Cyra is very steady and slow. PJ is spooky and fast. It is Cyra I am going to write about today.
I work at a barn about a mile from my farm. Both of my horses are involved in the work that I do. I am the co-founder of an equine assisted psychotherapy practice called Healing Through Horses. I ride PJ to work on Tuesdays and Cyra to work on Thursdays. With Cyra’s broad back, short stature and even temperament, I choose to ride her bareback. Sitting on her is like sitting in a warm overstuffed easy chair. PJ is too tall, too bony and too hot for a bareback ride. I ride him in a western roper’s saddle. On Thursdays our sessions go till after dark so our ride home is in the dark. I have equipped myself with the same lights a bike rider would wear, white in front, red in the back. The rides home after dark are always different. There are some nights when there are no stars or moon and perhaps even some fog. Those nights are very interesting as I have to trust Cyra to not be bothered by the sudden appearance of the headlights of oncoming cars and trucks.
Several weeks ago we made our way home not on a dark cloudy night but a night filled with stars and a nearly full moon in a cloudless sky. It was so bright, I turned our lights off. I normally ride home on the roads at night but this night was so bright that I decided to thread my way through the woods and fields to get back to my home barn. Coming out of the driveway at work, feeling the warmth of her body under me, I turned her toward home for a short stretch before disappearing into the moonlit woods. Riding by moonlight is a wonderful experience. The light is so ethereal that it feels as though you have entered into another world, similar to the day world but strangely different as well. Everything is softer with muted shapes and light that tricks the eyes into seeing things that are not there.
We crossed an open field at one point and the snow glowed softly in the moonlight. The apple trees that dotted the field seemed eager to transform themselves into other forms. I half expected to come across sleeping deer under those trees but did not. I grabbed a handful of Cyra’s thick black mane and picked up a trot and then a canter. Cyra’s hooves threw snow into the air in swirls at her feet. She was wearing a string of sleigh bells and the tinkling sound of the bells added additional magic to the already mystical ride. We reentered the woods at a walk, making our way though the dusky pines. We were soon back at the barn, welcomed by the whinny of PJ. I slid off her bare back, gave her thick neck a hug, fed her a treat and led her into the barn. It was a ride I will not soon forget. Michael Fralich firstname.lastname@example.org
Fifteen years ago I came home one afternoon from my teaching job at the Gray New Gloucester Middle School to find a flock of four geese sitting in my barn driveway. I had kept chickens for years but I had never had geese. I had no idea where they came from or what to do about them. Chickens I knew. They lived in a coop in the barnyard. I raised them for eggs. They went into their coop at night and I closed the door. Being an animal lover and knowing that I would learn as I went along with these new additions to the farm, I began to offer them food and water.
They seemed to settle in quite nicely. They didn’t mind the horses and the horses, although curious, didn’t seem to mind them. They were all white and after some research I determined that they were a breed called Pilgrim. While you cannot tell the sex of a goose by external characteristics, behavior is a guide. All of my new geese seemed to be getting along just fine with no one goose standing out as dominant. This led me to believe they were all females with no male or gander.
Word in the neighborhood got out that I now had geese and I was approached by a local family who had a gander that was looking for a home. This gander was a Toulouse which has dark varied plumage. I agreed to take him on knowing that this would likely result in my having more geese at some point down the road. I had a goose house built for them which they studiously ignored, preferring to claim the barnyard as theirs. When winter rolled around, they still ignored their house and would camp in the barnyard in the foulest weather, heads tucked under wings riding out even the worst of storms.
When spring came, they began to lay eggs and it became a tradition for the kids to take an egg to their teacher as a gift. They ultimately hatched out multiple clutches of goslings. Our children were in grade school at the time and were fascinated by the babies and were afraid that if I left them to fend for themselves, even with their parent’s protection, they would be taken by predators. We decided to take them from their parents and keep them protected. The babies then imprinted on our kids and would follow them around the farm like feathered puppies. They would take them for walks down to the brook to give them a chance to swim and then back to the farm and their house. They were a cross between their white moms and dark dad and were a lovely mottled color.
As the years rolled by more geese raised made it to maturity and the flock increased in size to at one point just shy of twenty individuals. When our kids were no longer kids, we let nature manage the flock and there were some years when no babies made it to adults. In the spring when the geese were laying but not sitting yet, I would collect the eggs to have for breakfast. One goose egg made a dandy meal. Our daughter once collected enough eggs to make a platter of hard boiled eggs from them. It was quite impressive as goose eggs are easily four times the size of a chicken egg.
The geese that did survive to adulthood were of course not all females. Ganders were added to the flock which made the flock dynamics interesting to say they least. In the spring the barnyard was a raucous place as ganders fought with other ganders for the right to breed with the females. A dozen geese all honking at each other is a sound not to be forgotten. We had a gander one year who decided that it was his job to either bite me in the butt when I wasn’t looking or to bite the tires of the school bus as it stopped to pick up kids. He met his end under the tire of a truck one sad day.
One of our geese once developed an infected foot, Bumble Foot we discovered was the name of her condition. I made the perhaps foolish decision to treat her and took her to the vet. He gave her a shot of antibiotics and sent us home with ten preloaded syringes to continue her treatment. My sainted wife opted to be the holder of the goose while I was the shooter ( I had to inject her breast with the medicine). She recovered nicely but I don’t think my wife ever did. It was at that point that we learned that geese can live to be thirty years old.
Our present flock numbers twelve. All of the original flock is gone. They roam the property at will adding their voices to the symphony of sounds at the farm. Some have died of old age, some have been taken by predators (fishers will kill a goose, take its head and leave the body untouched). Our current challenge with the geese centers around our two dogs, Mocha and Sadie. They are English Shepherds and are hard wired to herd animals. They have taken to herding the geese off the farm. The geese were taking up residence in the middle of the road much to the sometimes amusement and sometimes chagrin of our neighbors. I built them a pen, moved them back onto the farm and into their pen but the dogs have continued to drive them out (the geese are capable fliers when pushed). As of last week, the geese have taken up residence in the marsh opposite the farm. There is open water there. They are out of the road. The dogs will not go there as it is outside of their Invisible Fence. I am walking to the marsh and throwing them cracked corn each morning. Everyone seems quite happy.
Life at the farm is never boring.
Postscript to my geese journal….. February 3, 2016
Since I completed my entry concerning my geese there have been some new developments that I would like to touch on. When I went down to the marsh last week to scatter some cracked corn for my errant geese I was shocked to discover that six out of the twelve were missing. It seemed unlikely to me that a predator or predators would have taken six adult geese in twenty-four hours. There was no sign of struggle, no blood or scattered feathers that would have indicated an attack had taken place in the marsh. I heaved a sigh, fed the remaining six geese and went on with my day.
The next day when I went down to scatter cracked corn I was dismayed to discover that all of the geese were now gone. Again, no sign of struggle, no blood, no feathers. I could not hear any sounds that would indicate that they had just gone further into the marsh. They were just gone. Twelve healthy, adult geese each weighing approximately fifteen pounds, had simply vanished. I was left to ponder their fate for several days before I saw three of my flock on the road near the barn.
I the intervening days, I have been on the lookout for the remainder of the flock to no avail. I have not heard any sounds that would indicate that the other nine gees were anywhere in the marsh. I have been leaving food in my enclosure with the gate open and have had luck walking them into their new space several times but when I go to the barn to do the morning chores, they are always gone.
I am perplexed about the fate of most of my flock and it is entirely possible that I will never know what happened to them. Stay tuned for updates. I will share any new news as I have it.
It had snowed the night before. It was a light fluffy snow that had had gently settled onto the earth. It filled the crevices and depressions in the forest floor. It left a thick insulating blanket over the landscape.
The grouse had taken refuge in the lee of a familiar poplar and except for the occasional fluffing of her feathers she did not stir all night. She knew that somehow she was not in danger of being trapped by a heavy wet snow. This light airy blanket could completely cover her and she would be fine.
It had been an easy fall with mild temperatures and plenty of food. Her clutch of chicks were grown and gone. She would spend a solitary winter. She would forage and rest until spring. The drumming of the cocks would signal the change and the time for mating.
For now her life was simple. There were no young to protect and feed. There were no males vying for her favor. The absence of these complicating factors added to her already quiet rest.
The snow stopped sometime during the night. The morning dawned bright and clear. With a sudden rush of energy she burst from her bed. The wind picked up crystalline snow scattered by her exit and swirled it into the air. The sun caught the airborne prisms. It was as if there were thousands of diamonds caught in flight.
She flew to an oft-used perch in the same poplar that had sheltered her during the night. With typical animal patience she sat and surveyed her world before hunger motivated her to move.
It mattered not to her that today was Christmas. She knew a less specific calendar. In her own way she was thankful for her good fortune but no more this day than any other. She had three seasons of successful chick rearing behind her. There was plenty of forage. The owls and hawks had let her be. She was fulfilling her purpose in life. She was content.
Last week I laid out the journey that brought me to found Healing Through Horses with my friend and business partner, Sandy Fletcher. This week I would like to continue that narrative. I will attempt to capture what this new phase of my life has meant to me and the people that we serve.
Years ago I realized that I wanted to dedicate my life to serving the needs of others. I did this first through my volunteer work at Maine Audubon, leading nature walks for them. This led me to become certified to be a public school teacher. This morphed into my becoming certified as a therapeutic riding instructor at Riding To The Top in Windham. After eleven years there, Sandy and I founded Healing Through Horses here in New Gloucester.
Healing Through Horses (HTH) differs from Riding To The Top (RTT) in one key way. HTH partners with mental health professionals to offer counseling to people seeking help with their challenges in life. RTT teaches riding to disabled children and adults but offers no mental health services. At HTH I sometimes teach riding to clients if that fits with their treatment goals but not always. Some clients prefer to just learn how to take care of horses. The work at HTH is always done with two providers and the client My therapist partner, Susannah Harnden, works with the client to address their mental health needs. My job is to keep everyone safe as we partner with thousand pound animals that are hard wired to always be on alert as prey animals for danger.
I will begin to reflect on what this works has meant to me with the fact that I love to relate to those I talk to about HTH. I live a mile from where we do our work. My two horses, Cyra and PJ have their own clients in the practice who look forward to seeing them every week. On Tuesdays I ride PJ to work. On Thursdays I ride Cyra to work. Being a life long horse person to be able to not only do this work in partnership with my horses but also to ride them every week, all year round in the day and at night (our Thursday sessions in the winter end at 6:00 when it is fully dark) is a dream come true for me.
At this time of year when the weather is cool and the bugs are gone, I leave my house with plenty of time to be able to wander through my seven miles of trails on our land to make my way to HTH. This never gets old for me. Every time I throw my legs over a horse, it is magic for me. It is such an privilege to be on the back of these magnificent animals. I never take that for granted. That they allow me to be on them and that they are willing to thread their way through Norumbega’s woods through mud, over stone walls and across streams never ceases to amaze me.
When we arrive at HTH, a different kind of magic begins to happen. In the three years we have been in operation, we have gone from Sandy and me partnering with three horses in service to three clients to the present where we have four mental health professionals working with ten equine partners and eighty clients. Not only to we offer mental health counseling we also have a partnership with Avita of Stroudwater, a facility for elders with dementia. Twice a month Avita brings residents to HTH for interaction with Sammy, one of our Quarter-horses, and Cookie, our miniature horse mare. With the addition of the elders we have clients who range in age from six to ninety-six. We also have a small but growing program for veterans struggling with adjustment back to civilian life.
Before I began this work at HTH I had a deep respect for my horses. I knew how they enriched my life. I knew what joy they brought me in all aspects of my journey with them. To be able to fly across an open field on the back of a galloping horse is an experience that I hope I am able to have in my life for years to come. At age sixty-four, it seems nothing short of astounding that I am still able to do that (bareback on my mare Cyra!). Now that I share my equines with others and am witness to what they are able to do in other people’s lives it has deepened my love and respect for them beyond measure.
I will close with a story about just how profound this work can be. We had a client who I will call Mark (not his real name). A vet who suffered from PTSD, depression and anxiety, he came to us heavily medicated, suicidal, house bound and estranged from his two sons. In six weeks with my mare Cyra under Sandy’s and my guidance, he completely turned his life around. He got off his meds, reconnected with his sons, moved to a better place and enrolled in school. When asked how he was able to make such a miraculous transformation in his life, he replied, “It was all because Cyra accepted me as I was and helped me see who I could become.” I feel so blessed to be able to do work that flows from my heart in service to others and in partnership with my equine companions.
Since I graduated from college I have worked at a variety of jobs. I actually went to college twice. I graduated in 1974 from Goddard College with a BA in photography. I tried my hand at being a freelance photographer and managed to get a few jobs before taking a job at a camera store as I needed a steady income. I went back to college and graduated from the University of Michigan in 1981 with a BS in Natural Resources. Once again I was unable to find a position in my field and ended up doing many things for a number of years before I realized that what I really wanted to be was a teacher. I had done volunteer work for Maine Audubon for years and really loved being with children, sharing my time, knowledge and energy with these wonderful young beings. This led me to go to school once again to get my teaching credentials. Thus at age forty, I began a career that finally fit and paid me to do what I loved.
I worked in public education for fifteen years until I decided that while I loved teaching, it did not allow me to call upon my other passion in life, horses. I quit my job at the Gray New Gloucester Middle School and got certified as a therapeutic riding instructor and worked for eleven years for a non-profit located in Windham called Riding To The Top (RTT). At last I was able to blend teaching with horses. For eleven years I worked with a broad range of very special people ranging in age from five to sixty-five.. Our clients were all special needs riders with a variety of physical and emotional challenges. I learned a lot about horses, about myself and about the incredible resilience of my riders.
Four years ago we at RTT were approached by an organization called Crossroads for Women that provides services for adult women recovering form addiction. They came to RTT with their own mental health therapist as RTT had no therapists on staff. Six women came for six weeks for this pilot program. When they arrived for the first time, they were quite intimidated by our equine partners. None of these women had experience with horses. I started out by giving my safety talk and teaching the ladies how to interact with the horses in ways that minimized the chances of feet being stepped on a fingers ending up in horse mouths.
In the six weeks we were together I watched in awe as their new equine friends acted as catalysts for emotional growth and healthy introspection for the women. By the end of their time with us, the women had bonded with their equine partners to such an extent that many tears were shed as they bid farewell to the horses. The journey had been transformative not only for the women but also for me. I realized that this work, equine assisted psychotherapy (EAP), was what I wanted to do with the rest of my working life. It brought together not only my passion for teaching and my passion for horses but also my desire to partner with horses in ways that I never knew existed in service to others as they struggled with their challenges in life. It was at this point in my life that I called my long time friend, fellow horse person and therapist Sandy Fletcher to suggest forming our own non-profit to do EAP. Next time I will continue with how this all unfolded for me with the founding of Healing Through Horses.
When I made my way to the kitchen in the morning and saw that it was 37 degrees outside, I knew it was time. I also knew that as the day progressed, the temperature would rise. This was not the onset of true cold but it was sufficient to lead me to my double bitted ax and then to the woodshed. All good fires begin with kindling. I found a piece of oak that was split into quarters and went to work. Placing the oak on the splitting block I hit it with the ax just hard enough for the it to be stuck in the wood. The next blow caused the wood to split in two. I repeated this process until all of the pieces were too small to split again. I continued to work on the oak until I had an amount I considered about right. I collected up my kindling. I stored my ax out of the weather in the shed. I headed into the house.
In the kitchen, I tossed the splits in the kindling bin. I went to the drawer where I store newspaper. I sorted through my supply. I rejected the supplements. Coated in clay to make them more glossy, I find they do not burn as well as straight newsprint. I positioned my chair in front of our soapstone stove. I opened the door of the stove. I cleaned out the ashes from our fires last season. I filled the ash bucket. I took it outside. I dumped it in the ash pile behind the compost bin. Clouds of gray ask filled the air coating my boots and pants. Back in the kitchen I repositioned myself in front of the empty firebox. I began to rip the newspaper into strips. I continued until I felt that I had a good base layer. I started laying in the kindling. I placed eight sticks parallel to each other with about two inches between the pieces. I laid another layer of kindling in the same manner perpendicular to the first layer. I added another layer of newspaper strips. I continued this process until I had used up all my kindling. I ripped up more newspaper and placed it to the left of the firebox where the door opens. This additional paper would ignite the layers of paper and then the wood. The time had come to strike the match.
I picked up my box of Strike Anywhere wooden matches. I struck the match on the rough side of the box and touched it to the paper by the door and then to several places in the firebox. I then closed the door but left it slightly ajar. A roaring sound reached my ears as the paper caught and the fire spread. I sat in my chair and watched the fire come alive. The glass in the door was dirty. I knew that once the fire was firmly established, the heat would clean the glass of the carbon stains. When the fire was in no danger of going out, I closed the door. I sat back. I enjoyed the fruits of my efforts.
Yellow flames danced behind the glass. I was soon once again mesmerized by this old friend so long gone from my kitchen. I knew that I would miss the warmth of summer when no fire was needed. I also knew that I would the ritual of keeping warm by the heat of the stove in the coming months. When my kindling was fully engulfed in flames, I added some larger pieces to the fire. I then went about the business of making coffee and getting my breakfast. I kept my eye on my first fire, glad that my stove had come alive once again.
We all do chores. It is part of keeping our lives and personal spaces organized and not overwhelmed by the detritus that results from living, eating and maintaining a healthy life. For me, chores are a way of keeping me grounded on a journey that can be at times very chaotic. Chores require a routine. If that routine is adhered to and adapted as conditions change, my life can achieve a fragile state of balance. When a chore cycle is done, I always feel better about myself. I feel as though I have made some sense of my life and the spaces I inhabit. I can stand back and see the results of my labors and know that I am a good person for having disciplined myself to address the clutter that inevitably comes from being alive. My chores are divided into two realms, the house and the barn. It is the barn chores that are the subject of this blog post.
I am a keeper of animals. Some live in the house but most live outside, either in the barn and its environs or in one of the several pastures and orchards that are part of our farm. My outdoor chore cycle begins with a trip to fetch Mocha and Sadie who sleep in a kennel overlooking the orchard. Mocha and Sadie are English Shepherds. Their job is to keep deer out of our orchard. They spend 90% of their time outside in a twenty acre area defined by an invisible fence. They are both trained to the fence and know the boundaries of their domain very well.
With the girls in tow, I head to the barn. At the barn I have two horses, a flock of sixteen geese, a rooster and six laying hens. My two horses are Cyra, a mare that is a cross between a Clydesdale and a Newfoundland Pony. My gelding is a Tennessee Walker named PJ. I begin my care of them with their grain. I then begin cleaning their stalls. When that is done, I give them their hay, refresh their water and feed the geese, hens and rooster. The sweeping of the aisle completes the barn chores. I take pride in my barn. I always feel good when it is clean and my animals are well fed and watered.
I next turn my attention to preparing to do the chores of the animals who do not live in the barn, the pigs, cows, turkeys, ducks and meat birds. I fill five 5-gallon buckets with water as well as two buckets with pig grain and cracked corn for he birds. That done, I load these buckets into my pick-up truck, call Mocha and Sadie, get them into the cab and drive up top to the orchards and pig pasture and cow pasture.
I have a breeding sow and a boar named Shuhka and Shorty. Shuhka recently gave birth to piglets. They live in a pasture adjacent to our orchard. Their piglets are eight weeks old and are quite independent. They are still nursing but are also fond of the grain that I feed Shuhka and Shorty. Mocha, the older of our two English Shepherds, is very fond of the piglets and will mingle with them and even lie down amongst them if they are settled. Sadie keeps her distance. Mocha tries at times to herd the piglets but getting a pig of any age to go in any one direction is virtually impossible if the direction is not of their choosing. I now have Shuhka and Shorty separated to give her some space from him and to manage the breeding of the next litter. The piglets move freely between Mom and Dad, depending on who has the best food and wallow. Shuhka and Shorty split twenty-five pounds of grain a day with the larger portion going to Shuhka who needs the extra protein for her milk production. At over four hundred pounds, she requires a lot of feed.
Watering the pigs comes next. My pig pasture has no water source so I transport water up to them in five gallon buckets with lids. They go through about ten gallons of water a day each. Shorty is fond of nearly immediately dumping his water to create a wallow to relax in. Shuhka’s water becomes a wading pool for her offspring as well as a source of drinking water. Depending on how rushed I am with my chores, I often pause to give Shorty a good back scratch which he enjoys immensely. I also enjoy watching the antics of the piglets and their canine buddy, Mocha.
The fowl are next. The ducks are water intensive birds and I have to give them ten gallons a day to drink and splash around in. They live in a portable coop in the orchard. The coop can be moved so that with its wire floor, new grass comes up for them to eat every time we move it. Their waste goes into the ground to enrich it. The ducks are quite shy so I have no problems working with them as they retreat to the far end of the coop when I am feeding and watering them. The turkeys and meat birds are another matter. They are very curious and friendly and frankly a pain because they always attempt to get out when I have their door open. They are not as intensive in their demands for water. They get by with five gallons a day. Mocha and Sadie are fascinated by the birds and will dance around the outside of their coop when I am doing my chores. This is not appreciated by the birds.
Last on my list for chores are the cows. We have a Red Angus bull named Wild Bill, three Black Angus heifers and a steer calf. We have nicknamed Wild Bill, Chill Bill as he is a very laid back bull. He definitely is deserving of respect as he weights over a ton but I have never felt threatened by him. I don’t ever turn my back on him or the heifers but we all seem to get along just fine. I fill their one hundred gallon water trough from a hose that originates at the Cider House. The Cider House is off the grid so delivering water to the cows requires that I turn on the generator to have access to the well. Mocha and Sadie have gone into the five acre cow pasture from time to time but recently, they have chosen to hang back. Mocha has also tried to herd the cows with slightly better results than with the piglets. The cows browse on grass and saplings in their pasture, supplemented with a round bale of hay. I do feed them grain upon occasion but they really don’t need it and it cause for great excitement for them which sets them in motion and propels me outside of the fence for my own safety.
With the cows fed and watered, I am done for the morning and can then go to work! In recounting all that I do for my animals, it seems like a lot but I would have it no other way. They keep me grounded and entertained. When they are all well cared for, I feel better about myself. Though these tasks are called “chores” it is not a chore to do them. Caring for other living beings forms the center of my life. I would have it no other way.
Too slow for those who wait Too swift for those who fear Too long for those who grieve Too short for those who rejoice But for those who love Time is Eternity
I came across this quote on a sundial when strolling in the garden at Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, New York. Yaddo is a retreat center for artists. It was founded in 1900 by financier Spencer Trask and his wife Kartrina. Its mission is to, “…nurture the creative process by providing an opportunity for artists to work without interruption in a supportive environment.”
I have often pondered time and its passage. I know I am not alone in this. From the time humans were evolved enough, safe enough and well fed enough to have the luxury of time to contemplate their existence, I am sure they also reflected on time’s passage. These thoughts are thoughts of an older man.
When I was young my thoughts about time were focused on how much time I had until the final bell rang at school and then how much time I had until the next school vacation. When out of school, thoughts of time centered around how long I could stretch my woods wandering and still be home on time for dinner.
Now my musings about time are centered around not how much time I have before school is over but how much time I have before my life is over. I did not think about my own mortality when I was ten. Even going to the funerals of my grandparents did not rewire my thoughts about time. They died. I was alive. It was that simple.
At age sixty-three (nearly sixty-four which puts my thoughts solidly in the classic Beetles tune about the ancient age I have nearly achieved), I am very well aware of my own mortality. While I don’t compulsively think about death, I do contemplate it and find myself reading about this miraculous transition we will all face someday. I am currently reading “The Grace in Dying” by Kathleen Dowling Singh.
Kathleen Singh works with dying patients in hospice care. She has attended the deaths of hundreds of people. She describes what she calls the “nearing death experience” as a process of miraculous transformation as we mentally surrender into letting go of this physical realm to transition to the Great Mystery of what lies beyond life. She has witnessed an acceptance of what is coming by most, but by no means all, of those whose deaths she has attended. I find her observations to be very comforting as I let my own mind wander down this path. I was holding onto my mother’s hand when she died and I found that moment to be as miraculous as when I attended the births of both of my children.
As I write this post, I find myself to be the recipient of a gift of time. Last week on a cold but sunny morning I impatiently went for a bike ride at my farm. As I was making my way up our Orchard Road I caught my front wheel in a frozen rut. As I went down, the hard saddle on my bike dug into my knee and tore my ACL.
For the first few days after this unfortunate accident, I struggled with what this would mean for my immediate coming days and weeks. I live a very active life that involves riding not only bicycles but also horses twice a week as I commute to work on horseback. I have two horses in residence at my barn as well as pigs, geese and chickens. All of these animals require daily care. My mobility is of paramount importance as I attend to my barn chores. I found myself wallowing in self pity. I felt cursed.
I awoke this morning after a restless night brought on by my inability to get comfortable with my compromised knee to find that my attitude had shifted from feeling cursed to feeling blessed. Normally my day would have been a long one involving riding to work for our first session of the day at 9:00 (I co-founded and help run an Equine Assisted Psychotherapy practice at my partner’s barn about a mile away from my farm) and then returning home at around 7:00 after our last session of the day.
Prudence dictated that I take the day off and the coming days off until I get my knee attended to. This morning I found myself surrendering into this forced “vacation” and embracing the gift of time I had been given by this turn of events. Yesterday, there was no surrender. There was instead, depression and anxiety. I cannot say why this shift in my thinking has taken place. Perhaps I have gained some wisdom in my sixty-three years. I would hope so. In any case, this gift of time has allowed me to begin my healing process with a positive attitude and the time to contemplate time. I do not expect any great epiphany. What I do look forward to is taking this moment in time to quietly reflect on my journey as my knee begins to heal. This is a gift that I will savor.
In my fifty years being around horses, I have learned many things not only about horses but also about myself. That process will never stop. My animals are my greatest teachers. Some time back, I was asked by a friend to come to a workshop she was planning and talking about my experiences with horses. My response to this request was to come up with a list that I called Michael’s Maxims. It is in no way a complete list of suggestions, just thoughts that came to me at the time. So, without further ado, here they are….
1. Always close all doors to stalls and double check that they are closed. 2. Never get between two mares in a tight space. 3. Talk to your horse whenever you are around him or her. 4. Make sure you touch your horse every day even if you do not ride. 5. Never leave tools where your horse can get to them. 6. Buy more hay than you think you will need. If you can’t store it all in your loft, ask your hay supplier to store it for you. 7. Install a frost free hydrant in your barn no matter the cost. 8. Go for full moon rides. 9. Find a teenager in your neighborhood who you trust and have them help you with chores when you need them. 10. Learn to ride bareback. 11. Never let your horse run back to the barn. 12. Find a feed store that you like and be loyal to them. If they will deliver to your barn, take advantage of that. 13. Find people in your area who can do large animal care. Establish a relationship with them so that you can travel when you want to. 14. Sleep in your barn at least once in your life. 15. Find horse people in your neighborhood and ride with them. 16. Stay in the barn after you are done with your chores and hang out with them as they eat. 17. Watch your horses when they can’t see you from time to time.
18. Occasionally skip grooming and feet and go for a twenty minute ride if that is all the time you have. 19. Clean your barn as if the vet was coming every day but also don’t beat yourself up if your barn chores get neglected from time to time. 20. If you can afford a second horse, get one. If you can’t, take in a boarder. 21. Be firm with your horse but always back up that firmness with love. 22. Whenever you touch your horse, put your heart in your hand. 23. Whenever you have the time to make it happen, remember that groundwork is essential to a good ride. 24. Regularly take the time to just stand with your horse and just hang out. 25. Find your horse’s special spot to be scratched and frequently give it a good scratch. 26. Know that your horse loves you unconditionally and always try to return that love unconditionally as well. 27. Always listen to what your horse is telling you and respect what you are reading from them. 28. When your horse has a flight response, try your best to determine what triggered it. 29. Trust your horse’s instincts. If they do not want to go forward, understand that there is a reason why. 30. Remember that with horses, it is all good until it suddenly isn’t and when shit happens, breathe.
On Monday, February 18th at 10:00 AM, my beloved friend and greatest teacher, Tonka died. He had been in my barn for twenty years and for the past seven years was totally blind. He never lost his courage or confidence when he lost his sight. He adapted and got on with his life. It was easy to forget that he lived in a world of darkness. He knew his world very well and would frequently canter away into the pasture with no hesitation, in love with his life to the very end. He touched many lives and will be remembered and held tenderly in many hearts.
When you hear the word commuting, what images come to mind? If you are a working person in all likelihood you think of your own commute to work. Perhaps you live in a suburb of a large city and your commute involves making your way from your home to a four lane highway with thousands of other commuters in a mad rush of metal and global warming gases drifting up into the already dingy sky as you make your way into the city with its dim of noise and frenzied energy. Perhaps you already live in a city and your commute takes you underground to cram your body into an already jammed subway where you do your level best to avoid the inevitable physical contact with your fellow travelers. You might also be one of the lucky ones who works from home. For you your commute might be from your bed to your computer involving no need for car or subway, just you two feet. Maybe you bike to work and then you have the proper clothing and gear to contend with to keep you safe and warm as you dive into the stream of much larger vehicles, any of which could cause you bodily harm or death.
So what do we generally have as commuting options; car. bus, subway, bike or feet, right? How about commuting to work on a horse. That is what I do. I live in a rural town in Maine called New Gloucester. I have a farm situated on three hundred acres of mostly woodlands. I raise pigs, keep geese, chickens and I own three horses. My son has an orchard on our farm and makes hard cider which he sells commercially locally. We have gardens as well where we raise a variety of herbs and vegetables. All of our roads surrounding our farm are dirt. Two days a week, I work at a non-profit that I helped found called Healing Through Horses (HTH). HTH is an equine assisted psychotherapy practice that partners mental health practitioners with horses to help people with the challenges they face in their lives. We have four therapists and eight horses serving sixty clients at my partner’s farm a mile from my farm. My mare, Cyra, is a member of our practice with a list of her own clients who love her and rely on her healing presence in their lives so I ride her to work.
Cyra is a cross between a Clydesdale and a Newfoundland pony. Anheuser Busch has made the Clydesdale breed famous because of their use of them in pulling their famous beer wagons. Cyra has the look and build of a Budweiser horse in a smaller package. She has a broad and at this time of year, a very furry back. For this reason I ride her with no saddle. My only “tack” or equipment for her is a rope bridle that I made for her out of yachting rope. She is a very sensible horse that knows her job and does it without fuss. She can be stubborn and pull attitude (at work we call this “Cyratude”) but on our rides to and from work, she is rock solid. On Thursdays, we go home after dark and she is not at all phased by cars and their headlights, even when they are oncoming and blindingly bright on our otherwise dark ride home. Recently, we went to work with the temperature at five degrees below zero. The following is an account of that ride.
The recent blizzard had dumped over two feet of snow so the farm was buried under a layer of white that muted the contours of the land. I had cleared paths with the snowblower to get to the barn, the garage and the woodshed. I had spent all of the previous day doing snow removal, not only at our farm but at HTH. There I used our 55 hp four wheel drive John Deere diesel tractor to clear the paddocks of snow. I had not listened to the weather so was quite taken aback when I came down in the morning to see the temperature was -10. By the time I had all the animals fed and watered (I had to snowshoe into the pigs with their water and food), it had warmed up to a balmy -5.
I have lived in Maine since I was seven so I am used to the cold. On bitterly cold days, I layer up and can stay warm for most of the day although movement is cumbersome with so much clothing on. This morning I had six layers up top and two below. I have down filled LL Bean muttons that do a good job of keeping my hands warm. As ready as I would ever be, I returned to the barn after having put our dog, Mocha, back in the house and greeted Cyra with a horse treat, grabbed her bridle, slipped it on and led her out of her stall. She is shod with studded shoes (she threw one recently so until the farrier comes, we are making do with three) so I am confident of her footing. Prior to the recent storm, we had some winter rain which froze and left the barn driveway covered in treacherous ice. I decided to walk her down the driveway and mount her at the bottom because of this ice layer under the snow. Once on her broad furry back, we set off, her three shod feed crunching and her on bare foot squeaking on the packed snow.
There was no wind which was a blessing. Even the slightest breeze can make -5 seem much colder. I could feel the heat of her body coming up through my clothing and I silently thanked my living seat warmer for that gift on this cold day. Cyra was feeling perky and picked up a trot soon after leaving the barn driveway. I was not at all convinced this was a good idea and brought her back down to a walk. During our summer commutes together, we leave the roads as soon as we can and take to the fields and woods to get to work, trotting and cantering when the footing is good but on this morning we stuck to the cleared roads and kept our pace to a sedate walk.
I could here birdsong as we rode along. Our resident chickadees, were optimistically singing their two note song, usually reserved for the spring. Not much else could be heard except for the crunch, squeak of Cyra’s hooves. The winter months are a time of stillness and quiet in the country, especially after a big storm when animals are hunkered down and not moving much. I settled into the rhythm of Cyra’s movement under me. I was transfixed for a while by the sight of her lush mane as it flowed from side to side with each step she took. There was nary a cloud in the sky which was an unbroken azure dome above our heads. Even at a walk, our forward progress on the dirt road caused my face to burn with the cold winter air. Stone walls lined the road on either side of me, their long ago stacked rocks now white instead of granite gray. There was an 1820 farmhouse on my right. Moses True had built it and had farmed this land almost two hundred years ago. His old farmstead stood at the top of a hill and as we crested it, I looked back to see the just risen sun doing its best to warm up this January day.
I heard a car slowly approaching behind us and was pleased to see that as it drew along side it was my wife in her commuter vehicle making her way to her work. I pulled Cyra up into a halt and we chatted for a bit before she got out of her car and took some pictures of us. When she pulled away, we were left to ourselves once more, descending the hill now on the second half of ride. At the bottom, the woods fell away to be replaced by hay fields recently sculpted by the wind during the storm. The shadows of the trees at the edge of the fields were crisp and black on the new layer of white. Our shadow too kept us company as the road was now bathed in the sun of this new day. The cold air had a clarity to it that made everything seem sharper and more clearly defined. A slight breeze blew over the fields and my face felt this stirring of the air.
The driveway to HTH was now in sight. As we turned into it and I saw our round arena awaiting the day, I was filled with a sense of wonder at my life and its richness. I would spend the day sharing my energy and my horse with people who were as connected to her as I am and that felt good to me. I knew also that by the end of the day I would be chilled to the bone and would reverse this trip on my trusty friend under what I hoped would be a dome of stars. I felt truly blessed to be living a life so unique and full.
The following is a letter I wrote to Arla Patch, a trainer for Maine-Wabanaki REACH. REACH stands for Reconciliation, Engagement, Advocacy, Change and Healing. It is a coalition of native and non-native people working in support of the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). REACH conducts trainings for non-native people who wish to become allies in support of REACH’s work. These are my reflections after attending two Saturday workshops. The first was an all day talk by one of the commissioners of TRC, gkisedtanamoogk, a member of the Otter Clan of the Wampanoag Tribe of Massachusetts. The second workshop was an all day Ally Training organized by Maine-Wabanaki REACH.
January 11, 2015 Dear Arla,
I want to begin this letter with a heartfelt “Thank you!” for what you gave to all of us who attended the training yesterday. I had a vague idea of where we might be headed by the day I spent with gkseudtanamoogk but the viewing of “The Canary Effect” and the discussions that followed, centered around what I learned about the five hundred year history of genocide perpetrated on the Indigenous peoples of North America by my European fore-bearers, stunned and saddened me.
This new knowledge and our discussions were transformative for me. I have now begun a process of self-reflection that I know will be unfolding for some time to come. As I shared with you, my spiritual path has been profoundly shaped by my studies of Native ways, culture and spirituality. I have crafted a way of being in the world that has resonated deeply with my inherent knowledge of who I am based in part on what I have learned from my Native teachers.
In 1974 my wife and I bought a large parcel of land in New Gloucester we which dubbed Norumbega (a Penobscot word that once referred to all of the northeastern part of what is now the United States) to honor the Native People who once called this home. In the intervening years, it has nurtured my soul. As I a child I spent countless hours wandering the woods and shoreline of my hometown of Cape Elizabeth. I could not have expressed it at the time, but intuitively I knew that where I was happiest was outside. Years later, while perusing my studies of Native American culture and spirituality, I allied myself with a Lakota Medicine women named Night Walker, who gifted me with the Native name of Woods Walker, to reflect that part of me that had always been such a vital part of who I was and am.
As I also shared with you, I am now calling into question not only the many practices such as the Smudge Ceremony and Sweat Lodge Ceremonies that I have adopted in my spiritual journey, but also this naming gift from my Lakota teacher. The practices that I adopted from my teaching circles with Night Walker, I feel I can no longer embrace because of what I have learned in the past two Saturdays. I now have a profound appreciation for what we have taken from the many tribes of Native Peoples; their children, their land their very culture. My adoption of their rituals is another form of this “taking” which I cannot now condone. That I did this with no malicious intent does not matter. I must now find my own rituals that flow from my ancestors culture. I will have a private ceremony on my own to burn my smudge bowl and the tobacco, sage and cedar that I have for years held sacred. This is unsettling to me but I understand the need to do this given that my heritage is not Native and by continuing to conduct even the simple ceremony of prayer with the burning of these plants violates what I am trying to foster in my role as an Ally for the Wabanaki.
I know that I can still hold all beings as sacred. I know that I can still make every step upon the breast of Mother Earth filled with gratitude and respect. I know that my life is still filled with a sense of wonder and awe at what the Lakota call “The Spirit That Flows Through All Things”.
I can still hold as sacred every rock, tree, blade of grass, falling snowflake and drop of water that I encounter in my rambles with my dog in the woods of Norumbega which will forever be the spiritual center of my life. What I must do now moving forward is to find new ways to pray. That will not be hard. I have never had difficulty quieting my soul, stopping my movement and opening my heart to my Creator. In reality, nothing has changed. I am still the same person I was before being in the presence of gkisedtanamook and you. What has changed is that I am now filled with a new sense of purpose, a new energy and direction to take my respect for Native people. I now have concrete work to do and I am excited to begin.
Blessings on your day,
Michael Fralich Norumbega Farm New Gloucester, Maine