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
In the sixty-three years that I have been alive, I have nearly always been a keeper of animals. As a child, my first memories of a family pet was a Cocker Spaniel named Mickey. Mickey made the transition from our home in Dayton, Ohio to Cape Elizabeth, Maine in 1959. My memories of Mickey are sketchy at best. I do recall he was very focused on my Mom and did not do well with our move to Maine. Mickey was replaced by Princess, a collie, who had health issues and was perpetually in heat. This was back in days of free roaming packs of neighborhood dogs, many not neutered.
We constantly had swirling masses of male dogs on our front porch, vying for the attention of Princess. It became an issue when the mailman could no longer make his way to our front door without fear of attack by sex crazed pooches looking for love. Princess went to live at a “Farm out in the country” which I know now was a euphemism for euthanasia. During this period I also had cats, parakeets, and hamsters. From all of these animals I learned what it means to be loved by a fellow creature no matter what my human mood was.
Over the intervening years the list of animals I have kept and cared for is as follows: dogs, cats, hamsters, mice, rats, snakes, frogs, turtles, lizards, fish, chickens, geese, ducks, quail, sheep, goats, parrots, horses and pigs. I have learned many things from tending to the physical and emotional well being of my non-human friends. They have been my best teachers with the overriding lesson being that one can never have enough patience in dealing with another living being be they human or not.
My current inventory of animals includes one dog (a six month old English Shepherd named Mocha), one cat, one goldfish, one python, two horses, two pigs, twelve geese, one rooster and one hen. It is about Mocha that I want to write about today. In the four months since she came to us, she has reviewed for me all that I have learned in the past about being a friend to a canine and reminded me of lessons learned but forgotten. In spending so much time with her I have come to once again realize just how valuable a teacher Mocha is to me and how much I want to be more like her.
I have no desire to exchange two feet for four, shed my smooth human skin for a hairy coat or swap fingers for paws but there are many personality attributes that she possesses that I wish to emulate. I have made a partial list which I would like to share. I am sure more will come to me as I move through this exercise. I realize full well that she is a dog and I am not. Her way of being is different than mine. She is not burdened with a brain capable of the creation of things of great beauty but sadly also capable of great cruelty. I view this lack of hers not as a negative but rather a purer way of being to which I aspire. So this, in no particular order, is what I have come up with.
Mocha is always in the moment. We human have a term for this, quite trendy at present, we call this state mindfulness. We struggle with achieving this way of being, not letting the past or the present interfere with what is happening right now. Mocha has this nailed. That moment could be the touch of my hand as I scratch her tummy or it could be the story of the woods that she is reading with her nose. Whatever is in front of her is the most important thing in the world to her. Every time we are together I remind myself of how good she is at this and how I so often fail to achieve this wonderful state.
Mocha takes pleasure in the smallest of things. I have seen her leap up in the air to catch a passing moth or find a piece of bark to be captivating. She has no filter to prevent the appreciation of these small pleasures. They are just there for her to respond to and enjoy. While I too do enjoy interacting with things that enter my consciousness, I have the burden of that big brain that colors everything that I encounter in life.
Mocha is always curious about her world. To watch her in the woods on our walks is to see this in action. She may pause to sniff a twig or look up to see a crow fly overhead or wade into the brook to investigate the sound and feel of a little waterfall. There is always something that engages her no matter where she is. It could be something as simple as the end of her tail or an ant crawling across the kitchen floor. Everything fascinates her.
Mocha is always ready for adventure. She could be sound asleep on her settle mat in the kitchen but if I propose a walk, she is on her feet and ready for whatever I or the world has to offer for fun. There is no hemming or hawing, she is instantly ready for whatever life has to offer her.
This next one is huge for me as I struggle with this in my relationships all the time. Mocha is able to love unconditionally. She gives love freely trusting that it will be received in the spirit in which it is given. I too try to do this but find myself struggling with the idea that I do not want anything in return for the love I give to others. Mocha of course appreciates it when I love her back with a friendly scratch or an invitation to climb up and join me on the sofa but she would love me even if I didn’t love her right back. Her love is so pure. It is something that I strive every day to achieve.
Mocha is always happy to see her friends. She greets all she knows and even those she doesn’t know, with energy and enthusiasm as if to say, “It is so great to see you, you just made my day!” She does not carry any grudges about anyone. All canines and humans are sources of fun and joy to her. She also makes friends easily. She is ready to play with any person or dog who she encounters, willing to share her joyful spirit with no reservations. In greeting others and in play, she seems to have boundless energy. I know that she is still a puppy and that when I was at her equivalent in human age, I too probably had much more energy than I do at my age but it is inspiring to be with her and I find her energy to be infectious.
Her tireless energy combines with her playful spirit to create a being that engenders a desire in all who meet her to be with her as much as possible. When I have to say good-bye and go off to work, it is always with a twinge of sadness, already looking forward to when we can be together again.
She is a very affectionate, a trait that I really appreciate. She does not beg for attention but is always ready to receive a good tummy rub and will respond with lavish kisses. When we are both in a settled mood, I stretch out on the couch, invite her up and we have snuggle time which I find to be a great antidote for a day full of human challenges.
She eats out of hunger, not out of habit as I tend to do all too often. Food is nearly always available to her but she will ignore it until she feels the need for it. Food is not a crutch to her. She eats to fuel her body and when her tank if full, she moves on to other things.
This list of traits of Mocha’s that I wish to weave more fully into my life will grow with time as we get to know each other better. She has been a part of our lives for just four months but as this post reveals, she has already had a profound impact on my life. She has added richness to my already full life. Having had dogs in my life for most of my life, I know that our time together will go by all too fast. It is startling to think that Mocha could potentially be my companion and beloved friend until I am in my late 70’s. I will do my best to learn from her and follow her lead, staying in the moment with her every step of the way, treasuring and savoring our shared journey for as long as we are together.
I am a sixty-three year old man who is constantly amazed by where my life has taken me. I work two days a week at an Equine Assisted Psychotherapy practice, Healing Through Horses, that I co-founded three years ago, I partner with my son in his hard cider business, Norumbega Cidery, I raise mulefoot pigs, I run, with my wife of forty years, a musical venue, the Village Coffeehouse, in our church’s vestry, I am in the process, along with my family, of raising and training an English Shepherd puppy, Mocha, to be a deterrent to deer in our son’s young orchard and I tend to a barn that houses two horses, twelve geese a rooster, chickens and am in the process of building a winter shelter for my sow and my boar.
At this stage of a man’s life, one would typically expect a slowdown in activity, a reward for a life spent in providing for one’s family but I find myself becoming even busier as the years roll by and the projects I created and support take on lives of their own. This is not a bad thing. It keeps me engaged with a life that is richer that I ever could have envisioned. I am learning new shills and am outside and physically active every day as I tend to all of the various threads of my life.
Where I live is as important as what I do. When my wife and I were first married, we knew that we both wanted to settle in Maine and raise our family in a setting that would foster in them the strong connection we both felt to Maine. We grew up in the suburbs of Portland but wanted to be out in the country for the next phase of our lives. We purchased one hundred and sixty acres of woods in New Gloucester and promptly erected a tipi beside one of the property’s brooks. We lived in Boston at the time and would come to New Gloucester for weekends and the occasional week as we both continued to finish up our educations. In 1979, we moved back to Maine, took a course in home building at the Shelter Institute and shortly thereafter, began to build our home on the land we we had dubbed Norumbega.
A year later, we moved in to our far from finished home and began to explore what it meant to live out in the country in a town we were just beginning to get to know. In the years that followed, our lives began to take on a richness that left us both wondering what we had done to deserve so many blessings. Our son was born in 1985 and his sister followed in 1988. I took on a new career as a teacher when I turned forty and in the years since, my life has continued to evolve and morph into the multifaceted existence that keeps me so busy today.
Through all of this, Norumbega (a Penobscot word that once referred to all of the northeastern part of what is now the United States), 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, and took on the adopted 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 launch this new way of sharing my life with the world, I have a strong desire to express the joy and amazement that each new day brings me. I begin each day in prayer with the recitation of a personal creed. It touches on the aspects of my life that are so important to me. One of these deeply held feelings is gratitude. I feel so blessed to find myself in what some would call the “Sunset Years” of my life, vital and engaged in pursuits that touch not only my life but the lives of others. It is my intention through these posts to share the joy of my journey with all who care to join me.