Did you mean that Literally?

Some day, neuroscientists will discover that cultivating affection for animals causes us to speak in euphemisms. As soon as the heart warms, brain function changes somewhere in the speech and communication center. Thereafter, we speak about the object of our affection with adjectives that employ liberties with the truth.

This is similar to when we refer to the behaviors and habits of our human loved ones as “quirky” instead of what they really are, which is annoying or offensive. Or when we call someone who lies compulsively “a great story teller.” I believe this comes from wanting to prop up our own egos. You see, imagining that the pain-in-the-butt habits of those we cherish are more unique and special than other people’s pain-in-the-butt characteristics allows us to maintain faith in ourselves. Surely, it would not look favorable for us to foster love for ordinary annoyance. No, we prefer to believe that we love exceptional, unparalleled, or even brilliant annoyance.

When you work with animals for a living, as I do, it is necessary to develop competence for reading between these lines. One must become versed in the adaptive qualities of language. Thus, a “very intelligent” horse is translated as one that is clever and quick, overly sensitive and likely to hurt his rider unless she maintains a zen-like mind state combined with the body control of a martial arts master. Whenever a colleague of mine describes a horse by pausing mid-sentence before settling on the word “intelligent,” I recognize that he or she is speaking in code. What she actually means is that I should not allow any of my students to purchase the horse because it is volatile and reactive. When one trainer says to another that the horse is “intelligent” it means to be on guard because nothing about this animal is straightforward. Some might be tempted to call it difficult or intractable. But once affection is cultivated, those terms no longer apply. Then, one must use a different language because cultivating love for an animal considered hopelessly not trainable is pretty lame. This is where the flexibility of language helps.

The same goes for saying an animal has “a good work ethic.” This generally does not mean what a layperson would expect, which would be that the horse maintains a keen focus on his work without complaint or refusal. Instead, it means that no amount of exercise or rigorous mental/physical activity will tire the beast out. He will zoom around the arena at maximum energy output without any cue from the rider. He will go like this for hours. And, impressively, he becomes more hyper the longer he goes. His system appears immune to fatigue. This kind of horse with “a good work ethic” has a difficult time with anything that requires relaxation or calm focus and prefers raw speed or riding patterns at race tempo.

On the other side of the spectrum are the “very friendly” horses. This is the group disinterested in work. These horses like to lounge around and are so cute doing so that they have become fairly spoiled. A “very friendly” horse crowds your space and bites at your pockets looking for treats. Sometimes, in his pushiness, he will ram you with his head and shove you off balance. Although in the language of euphemisms, this shove would be called a ‘nuzzle.’ Your bruised sternum is the evidence of how ‘friendly’ this guy is.

I figure it’s just a matter of time before we horse folks write ourselves a new dictionary. It shall be called the Oxford English Pet Ownership Dictionary and will contain no adjectives with deprecating meanings. It will give the owner of any animal possessing ornery and potentially dislikeable traits an array of descriptors to reinvent the pet. Angry and aggressive now becomes rowdy and spunky. Dim-witted becomes sweet or obedient. Disagreeable gets translated to independent, intelligent. And the next time, someone with a lot less affection for your animal expresses annoyance towards him, you can thank goodness for this dictionary. And thank goodness for the English language in general, especially its convenient malleability. It sure makes loving an occasional nuisance a lot easier.

Whose Health is This, Anyway?

My students will tell you I am an incurable skeptic when it comes to nutritional supplements and miracle health products. I scoff at costly ingestions promising to improve your horse’s vitality or give him younger joints. My rationale goes like this: supplement manufacturers are just in the business of making money, not helping horses. There is no hard science or drug regulations behind these products and most don’t accomplish half of what they claim.

Generally, my students turn a deaf ear to my sound advice, though, and buy all kinds of powders and potions for their steeds. They pretend not to see my eye- rolling and head waggling. At the end of the day, my students are happy with their efforts and that’s what counts, not my stern attempt to educate them about nutrition.

Nowadays, any time I begin to tell someone not to buy an unnecessary supplement, I recall an equine nutrition lecture I attended a few years ago. In it, I listened to a veterinarian dispel the benefits of hot bran mashes, which sounded like blasphemy to the audience. Mashes have been touted by equestrians through history as the means to and maintenance of horse health. If one’s horse suffered anything from lameness to colic to itchy skin, one gave him a bran mash. By the time he took his first bite, it was believed he was well on his way to wellness.

So, what were we to do with this vet’s news?

He went on to explain that it was impossible to heat up a bran mash– or anything, for that matter– to a point that would increase a horse’s core temperature. It was scientifically untrue that a mash warmed him from head to hoof. Thus, he advised us, we could go on feeding mashes if we liked, but just understand that no benefits would be reaped. A disgruntled audience member raised her hand.

“I would like to disagree,” said the local barn owner. “Maybe you should consider that feeding my horse a bran mash makes ME feel good. And isn’t that a benefit?”

She spoke wisely. Maybe measurable health improvements are of secondary importance. Perhaps what really counts is that WE feel better when we apply a certain salve or supplement. Or bran mash.

For years, I prided myself for not falling into this trap. One can spend a lot of money on equine supplements and gadgets. All those companies making powders for this and that didn’t prey on my checkbook. The rubber balls promising to bring one’s horse hours of enjoyable activity in his paddock? Forget it. The $10 peppermint flavored bit wipes? Nope. The granules of vitamins to make his hooves stronger? No thanks.

Then, something strange happened last week. A weakness cracked my normally curmudgeonly ways. It happened on a trip to the local feed and tack store for necessary supplies like fly spray, lead ropes, and leather cleaner. I execute this routine monthly, visiting the same shelves for the same products every time. I bypass the large displays of hokey gadgets and gizmos for horses– neon stall toys, gourmet heart-shaped treats, garish fly masks with sparkly crystals. As I zoom past on my way to the fly spray shelf, I wonder what fools actually buy this stuff?

On my way to the fly spray shelf this time, I stopped for reasons unknown in the section of the store filled with kitschy things and examined a table display for a new product promising health and vigor for one’s horse. Here, where I normally would have rolled my eyes and kept walking past, I grabbed a glossy brochure about Red Rock Mineral Supplement. The display looked to me exactly like a bin filled with chunks of stone blasted from a roadway construction project. For $15, a person could buy one of these rocks and take it home to his or her horse. I stood there reading about the “special” mineral qualities of these very normal looking rocks, the “healing properties,” and their “highly balanced electrolyte” composition. It all sounded good.

I grabbed one of the rocks and turned the dusty chunk over in my hands. At first, my inner skeptic wondered what clever cow farmer had harrowed these up while clearing a field and then decided to monetize them on us loose-wallet horse folks. But my newly weak mind countered, no, surely these rocks–while appearing nothing but ordinary pasture rocks– must have come from a special place and have special properties and be really…well, special. I pictured my horse becoming glossier from head to tail and then turning into a super athlete after such an infusion of minerals and vitamins. Suddenly, I couldn’t picture her life without this rock in it. How had she made it this far in good health without it?

I hurried to the checkout counter with my pile of barn essentials and the rock. At first, the cashier looked at the rock like something I carried in from the parking lot. He glanced at it quizzically a few times while tallying my other purchases. Then an expression of recognition pulled at the corners of his eyes and mouth. He stifled a smirk as he asked “So, you’re going to try one of our new mineral blocks, eh?” The way he said it made me feel like the first statistic in a store wide betting pool. I imagined he and his colleagues laughing at the display box of rocks when it arrived, slapping each other on the back, chortling about the kind of fool who would buy one.

There I was, the first fool. I clung to the promises in the glossy brochure, though, as I drove straight to the barn. Part of me assumed my horse Harmony would greet me like a kid at Halloween, prancing eagerly on her side of the stall door wondering what I had in my hands for her. She would likely chomp down on the block or lick it insatiably, I told myself. And then, pausing, she might glance up at me as if to say how did you know this is what I needed?

Of course none of this happened. Harmony took no notice of the rock as I put it in her stall. She didn’t even sniff it. After five minutes, I went back into her stall and led her over to it. I rubbed the rock with my fingers and then held them to her lips so she could lick off the mineral goodness. She ignored me. Oh well, I told myself, maybe it’s just the wrong time of day. Later on, she might experience a mineral deficiency and be grateful for her new rock. I couldn’t deny that a few big lick marks on that rock the following day would satisfy me immensely.

Instead, I arrived at her stall and saw one corner of the rock buried in shavings. The other end was under a pile of poop. Rather than admit that the rock was a silly purchase, I maintained hope that magical properties lurked in it. Sure, those properties might be buried under manure right now. But they were there, right? Outside, I hosed it off and scrubbed it clean, then patted it dry and put it directly in Harmony’s grain bucket to entice her.

The following day she found a way to tip her bucket and dump the rock. She then pushed it to the corner of her stall and urinated on it. Crestfallen, I began to realize this not-so-magical mineral supplement was nothing but a waste of $15, just like my normal curmudgeonly self would have known. I gave Harmony one full week with her rock and she never licked it once. Eventually I removed it from her stall and tossed it out, feeling low in spirits. Granted, most of what I felt was sorry for myself. I had to concede that all along, I hoped for the enjoyment of the rock not from Harmony’s perspective but from my own. It would have given me a little spring in my step to see her lapping something that I–her wonderful, caring, selfless owner— got for her.

In writing this, I hope to convince those companies that make oodles of money from equestrians buying their useless products to change the labeling on them. They can continue to promise fictitious health benefits if they wish. But they shall also add in bold print: Warning. Using this product may not lead to measurable gains in your own satisfaction and happiness. It is for horses only. For your own mental well-being and pride, you may seek therapy or other means.

Step Away from the Broom and Nobody Gets Hurt

Life in the country means you are a long way down a bumpy road far away from stores where you can buy stuff. And this pretty much guarantees that you are not going to buy very many new things every year. Foolishly, one could assume that farm and ranch folks, therefore, avoid being victims of materialism. One might even assume that with their simple shopping-free lives, these folks have transcended material needs.

But, no. What happens at farms across America is a rare form of object-attachment, the likes of which I’ve never read in psychology books or sociology classes. In a nutshell, farm owners form strange bonds with their tools. It may derive from the fact that sometimes whole days will pass with barn chores, feeding animals, and zero human interaction. Pretty soon, the farm owner finds herself talking out loud to the pitchfork. I call this The Great Rake Affliction.

Most often, it begins benignly. Over many months of barn chores, an individual begins to favor a particular tool– pitchfork, shovel, rake, fork. The individual convinces him or herself this loyalty is due to the tool’s superior qualities like sturdiness and weight. But in reality, favoring one pitchfork over another has little to do with superiority. It’s just what someone gets attached to, like a favorite pair of jeans or chipped coffee mug. As with other favorite things, uncomfortable feelings can arise should someone try to borrow the preferred tool. Eventually, the barn owner stops sharing completely– no matter how politely someone might ask to borrow it– and develops a habit of hiding the treasured tool even at the risk of forgetting where she stashed it.

A couple years ago, I helped a friend organize some paperwork for her divorce. An exceptionally generous and affluent woman, she was willing to let most of her beautiful ranch’s property go to her husband. She made a short list of the things she felt belonged exclusively to her: Kubota tractor, two Andalusian stallions, two saddles, and the Ames True Temper steel shovel.

“Is this $20 shovel really that important?” I asked. Compared with the equipment and magnitude of expenses involved with her divorce, it seemed so trivial. She wasted no time to tell me how much she loved that shovel. Replacing it with another one just wouldn’t be acceptable. In fact, if forced to choose between one of her fancy Andalusian stallions and that shovel, she said she would be hard pressed.

Huh?

“You know how it is when you have a favorite shovel,” she reasoned. “I use it every morning. There’s no way I’m leaving it here for other people to use. It’s just a…just… it’s just a really good shovel.”

I let the issue go before things got any more emotional. I should have known better anyway. Not only did both my mother and father hide their favorite pitchforks in secret crannies around the farm when I was growing up but eventually they began locking them up in padlocked closets, safeguarding them even from each other.

This tool loyalty escalated over the years, building up to a high-speed chase after one of our neighbors. Much remains in my memory from that day of squealing tires, mom’s use of swear words I’d never heard before, and teeth-clenched terror about her reckless driving. Above all, my 13-year old brain struggled to understand how there could possibly be so much drama over a leaf rake.

It all happened when my mom, who got a bit thirsty while raking leaves, leaned her rake against our mailbox to duck inside the house for some iced tea. As she poured herself a glass at the kitchen table, she saw through the screen door a small red truck slow down by the mailbox and then stop. A young man wearing Wranglers and a flannel shirt darted from the driver’s side, tossed her rake in his pick-up, and drove away. My mother slammed down her glass and bolted down the front steps, at this point yelling as if someone had just set fire to her house. Not one to miss out on any action, I followed on her heels as she jumped into her Dodge Ram truck and floored the gas pedal. Spinning gravel and dust in every direction, she got that truck to within 100 feet of the thief in sheer seconds. He spotted us in his rear view mirror and tried to ditch us, foolishly believing he might outrun this crazy 5’2″ woman behind him driving her over-sized truck at speeds well beyond her skill.

We skidded around tight corners on our narrow road, launched the front wheels airborne over potholes, racing at speeds typically reserved for law enforcement officials and Nascar drivers. My mom alternated between waving her middle finger out the window and maniacally honking the horn. Whenever she found the chance on a straightaway, she flashed her lights and stuck her head out the window to yell every manner of insult and cuss word. I clenched my jaw and dug my fingers into the seat cushion. The outside world sped by so rapidly that trees, road, sky all blurred together into a bluish gray streak. Now terrified, I wondered how long can a high speed chase for a leaf rake possibly last?

Finally, we barrelled to the three-way intersection of Route 12 and West Street and the rake thief accelerated to blast through it but then thought better and allowed his vehicle to slow down and drift to the shoulder. He exited his truck and sheepishly awaited the berating coming his way. The tall muscular young man hung his head as my mother pounced on him, reaching up to grab his lapels and assuring him eternal bad karma and damnation unless he could scrounge up a very compelling excuse for stealing her rake. The best he mustered was a whimper that he thought nobody would notice if he stole it.

Mom made a few unsavory comments about an obviously low I.Q., sub par morals, and idiotic judgment as she released him and retrieved her rake. With the prized possession, we drove slowly and quietly back home. Mom appeared almost giddy after the drama of the chase and having reclaimed her property. In fact, she was so relieved that I’m not sure it occurred to her how lucky we were to be alive. And therein lies the message of my story. Nothing comes between a farmer and his or her tools. Nothing. Consider this advance warning the next time you consider helping yourself to a seemingly innocuous shovel or pitchfork. You just might find yourself the recipient of cuss words you never imagined a farm tool could inspire.