Just in from the night feed. It’s longjohn weather, my head bandaged with layers of hats and a muffler, thick boots, a winter barn coat that makes me look like one of those inflatable lawn ornaments folks have in town. It’s ten degrees on a particularly black night when the stars are the starkest white. There’s a silent dusting of snow.
The night is so quiet that animals aren’t hunkered down in their stalls. Instead, they are standing in friendly groups, playing nose games. When they hear the backyard gate, there is a round of nickers, each voice recognizable. Edgar Rice Burro takes a few wheezing gasps warming up for his full-out bray.
Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year. I love this night for its supernatural quality. You can half-see every horse you ever loved in the periphery, never really gone at all. Throw some extra hay for the long darkness tonight. Extra hay for the horses who have walked on, for those yet to arrive, and for those who have none. Throw extra hay as an affirmation that it’ll all be okay.
European countries have traditional stories about animals magically talking at midnight. Some say it starts with the Feast of Santa Lucia, others say Solstice or others, Christmas Eve. It’s oxen and donkeys mainly. One fable says oxen knelt and welcomed the baby Jesus verbally. Like many folktales, some have pagan roots as well. In those stories, animals talk at midnight, but not always kindly. Some animals take revenge and owners get their due for poor care or over-work. Which does sound like something to celebrate.
Annual PSA: For all the talk about the “War on Christmas,” kindly remember that some of us feel that Christmas declares war on us every year. It would be Christian to remember that not all of us are Christians. Not everyone has a family. Some of us have lost loved ones. Some of us feel excluded or judged unfairly or are just licking our wounds from a hard-fought year. Not everyone can keep up. Santa brings some kids computers or real ponies, while some kids get socks. Even Santa isn’t fair. (Every year, I meet more people who choose to not celebrate the holiday. It gives me hope.)
So, I drag my feet, considering the variations on this folktale, as I finish in the barn, nod to the ghosts, and start back to the house. On a sacred night like this, I hear voices. Oh, that’s a lie. I always hear voices. Animals are chatterboxes if you listen to their body-voice and even the most stoic horse over-talks when he thinks he’s being heard.
What do animals say? No shortage of opinions there. I must hear my father’s voice loudest, also a ghost now, but still insisting that dumb animals, beasts of burden, can’t think or feel. A traditional majority agrees with him. Science says differently and more of us are curious. That’s a partial win.
The other extreme? A touchy subject. I’ll call them Romanticizers. They love horses so much that they have a barn full of skinny rescues with long hooves. Some rally behind the term NO KILL and sometimes that means suffering. Some believe horses are divine spiritual teachers. They put human words into equine mouths to support their goals or politics, and then feel superiorly-humble about it. It’s okay. Horses don’t seem to take that seriously.
I have my own opinions, not any more popular. I don’t think horses consider us the center of their lives, no matter how much we wish they did. They have full sentient lives, more connected with the herd than the humans who visit a few hours a day. Some of us are pretty interesting to them, but we are other.
I’m interested in those of us in the middle of these two thought extremes, trying to listen and be perceptive, while not over-humanizing horses. It’s challenging because we only have our human experience to compare with theirs. Kind of a dilemma, if you follow. It means pushing our love and passion aside, using our human language to describe them, while respecting their equine nature and instinct primarily.
All that said… on this magic night, what might horses say?
Some say humans are a warlike species, angry and cruel, to be avoided and never trusted. Other equines wonder if humans might be a sentient species. Some think we seem to read their minds from time to time. Other times humans are flighty and spook easily. They wonder if humans are capable of communication, so they come close and try to listen. Beyond the din of our words, they notice that many humans give conflicting messages. Many are timid or ill-tempered.
So, they give us calming signals to let us know that they are no threat. That we don’t have to be so loud in our love or hate; that we don’t have to try so hard. They share breath with us, suggesting peace as an alternative to our incomprehensible mental chatter. Some horses think humans might even have souls.