Rosalyn W. Berne, Ph.D
Author, Scholar, Equine Empath


Summer, 2017


What happened had never happened before. And if I didn’t know better, I’d say the horses had planned the entire affair. Here’s a bit of background to set the scene: 

On mornings during the summer months, because Virginia afternoons are too hot for such, my husband Bill and I rise early from bed and head out of doors to remove the horse dung from the pastures. The collected dung is eventually put back; spread across the pastures in smaller pieces, and then chain harrowed to a fine consistency. (Our contribution to carbon sequestration.) In late October, once the flies have died back, we’ll set some of the dung aside where by spring it will be a rich manure, that will enrich the soil of our vegetable garden. But until then, this is how it goes.

Our morning dung-collecting ritual involves a tractor, a spreader (pulled by the tractor), leather gloves, and metal dung forks for each of us to use.  I prefer for Bill to drive the tractor so that I can “get in my steps” from walking. My job, therefore, is to open and close the fence gate as Bill drives the tractor in and out. 

Not far from the rear pasture gate is the run-in shed, where these days the horses spend a lot of time getting shelter from the sun. Usually, as Bill drives the tractor through the gate, the horses remain standing still, watching us as we approach.  As Bill and I fork up the dung inside the run-in shed, Ruby and Raven lean their bodies against the tractor’s frame, using the steering wheel and other components to scratch their chins, and necks, and rumps. The annoyance is when headstrong Raven refuses to step back from the tractor when the time comes to move on. Other than that, the entire affair is generally uneventful, except for this time.   

Bill was away in Washington, D.C., and I alone at Willow Oak, responsible for getting this morning chore done without him. Here’s what happened:

I start the tractor in the equipment shed, drive it up to the gate, get off the tractor and open the gate (but not very wide), and then drive the tractor in such a way that I can gently nudge the gate to open wider as I move forward. Suddenly the gate flies all the way open and Ruby makes a dash, followed by Raven, then Nash, passing me and running out. I have no time to do anything to halt their getaway.

On this particular morning I had a commitment in town, and needed to leave shortly thereafter. So the first thing I thought was, “Oh no; now I’ll be late, if I get there at all!”

I hop down from the tractor seat, and calmly walk to the driveway to secure it with the rope barrier; at least the three would be contained on our property and safe way. I then glance over at my vegetable garden, at the squash, Swiss chard, carrots, sweet potatoes, and melons that are growing so very well. Just the thought of the three horses trampling across it, or eating the leaves, makes my stomach form into a knot.  Meanwhile, they trot here and there across front yard, explore the equipment shed, investigate the backyard and the deck, until settling down to eat the lush grass of the lawn.  And what do I do? Well, first I text Bill. Even though there is nothing he could to help me, being 100 miles away, at least he will appreciate my predicament. Then, I go into the barn to get a lead rope. Next, I stand under a maple tree, about 30 feet away from where Raven is lawn grazing. Very calmly I take in a few slow, deep breaths. I ponder my situation, and notice the beauty of the morning’s clear blue sky.

I consider calling my friend Renée, a masterful horsewoman, to ask if she would mind coming over with her two stablemen to help me catch these three. 

No. That’s not a good idea, I realize. I’ve got to handle this myself.

Feeling somewhat helpless, I get quieter inside, feeling a sense of calm, even peaceful. I gaze at Raven. She looks.  And then, to my utter surprise, she walks straight to me until her head is nearly touching my chest. I gently hook the lead rope onto her halter and say, “Let’s go, Raven. I need for you to come back into the paddock now.” With that, we walk, side by side, and through the open gate. Nash and Ruby follow right behind us.

As the horses stood in the shed, I removed each pile of dung, chuckling as I playfully scolded the three rascals. How could you? And of all the horses; you, Miss Ruby?” She’s started it, I surmised. I wasn’t angry. In fact, I was joyful, albeit relieved. They’d had fun. And I’d learned; it was a very important lesson. Not so much about opening gate (although I won’t let that happen again!) But more about myself. I believe that it was my peace and calm, and presence of mind that drew Raven to me. Had I been run here and there, anxiously chasing these three, I’d have exhausted us all and not necessarily been successful. Instead, my lovely Raven was there, for me, when I truly needed her.  We have entered a new place in our relationship.

Rosalyn Berne