‘Said the night wind to the little lamb …’

As a city child connecting with nature, animals, and the bigger picture of Christmas, “Do You Hear What I Hear?” became a favorite. The story behind the song, which I learned only recently, deepens its meaning for me.

But first, the story in the song: The night wind speaks to a little lamb of a brilliant star. The lamb tells a shepherd boy of music high above the trees. The shepherd boy tells a king about a child shivering in the cold of a humble stable and worthy of riches. The king tells the people this child is the bearer of goodness and light … and exhorts all to pray for peace.

Each being tells another about what they see, hear, and know. They’re all experiencing a different aspect of what is happening. None of them are wrong.

“Do You Hear What I Hear?” was written during the Cuban Missile Crisis by an American husband-and-wife team. According to this Franciscan Media account, French-born lyricist Noel Regney endured horrible trauma during World War II after being drafted to fight for the Nazis. The threat of catastrophic war in 1962 brought it all back as he faced the task of writing a Christmas song for a record producer.

Then Regney saw two babies in strollers smile at each other on a New York street. Their innocence reminded him of lambs … and there was the beginning of the song. At home, he wrote down the lyrics and asked his then-wife, pianist and composer Gloria Shayne, to write the music. Neither could get through the song without crying, Shayne recalled later.

That was the light they found and shared during during a dark time. We can share our light, too — through a smile, a prayer, a gentle pet, an ear scratch, a bag of food to an animal shelter or rescue. It doesn’t matter how small, stupid, or pointless we might think it is. That bag of food might help a lonely veteran keep his dog. Your smile at the woman at the grocery store may be the only kindness she experiences that day. That prayer may turn on a light for you.

“Pray for peace, people everywhere,” indeed.

Bing Crosby’s 1963 rendition of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” is probably the best known. I grew up with the Andy Williams version from the 1966 Great Songs of Christmas album. For this tribute to the animals I’ve worked with this year in my animal communication and animal Reiki practice — and their wonderful people — I chose Mannheim Steamroller’s instrumental version.

Just like the little lamb, the animals of our time tell brilliant stories of hope. I’ve heard a cat’s deep love for her person as she is ready to cross, a draft horse’s amazement at being able to choose, a deaf and blind duck giving life a chance, and more. For each one, I am grateful.

(Photo by Allison Wheaton)

When we listen to everyone but the donkey

Field geologist and college professor Margaret Winslow tried to do all the right things after answering a for-sale ad for a donkey. She read the books and the magazines and found a donkey trainer. It took years of near-fruitless efforts and a couple of horrific experiences before Winslow figured out how to listen to Caleb, the large white donkey — and herself.

smart-ass-bordered_09211139The journey she describes in Smart Ass: How a Donkey Challenged Me to Accept His True Nature & Rediscover My Own (New World Library, 2018) is both engaging and frustrating. Overall, it underscores what I know about presence and connection with animals. However, there are a few points at which I wondered what on earth the author was thinking.

This is where I admit up front that while I work with equines as an animal communicator and animal Reiki practitioner, I’m not a rider or owner. My only donkey experience is with two at Summit Equestrian Center: Rosie (former resident), a mini donkey who is probably part border collie; and Diego, a quiet soul who came from southern Arizona by way of the Bureau of Land Management.

I appreciate Winslow’s love, humor, and persistence and can identify with so many of her ups and downs. We don’t know what we don’t know about the particularities of donkey training or whatever else. Animals are our teachers, but like the best teachers, they’re learning too.

Winslow’s near-constant frustration at work is often weighing on her as she arrives at Caleb’s barn and begins grooming him. He feels it and mirrors it, though it takes a while for her to understand this. I, too, have to consistently practice being fully present with whatever animal I’m working with in the moment. This is especially true with horses and donkeys.

Early in the book, Winslow asks herself: “When had I become such a conciliatory, conflict-averse wimp of a college professor who shrank from controversy?” Sadly, the behavior she tolerates from Caleb’s trainers is the best example.

The husband and wife, with their adult daughter, are the only donkey trainers within a day’s drive. They may legitimately know their stuff, and glimmers of insight and kindheartedness surface. But when they drink on the job and ridicule clients, it’s hard to imagine a better choice couldn’t have been made. Winslow just keeps going back for more.

She does eventually board Caleb closer to home, where working with the stable owner yields slightly better results. Lessons with a specialized trainer fail when the trainer beats Caleb. To her credit, Winslow grabs the stick away and yells at the trainer to stop.

The donkey trainers come back into play when, after a horrible injury, Winslow is ready to have them sell him. Or to board him there permanently — even though she believes the daughter capable of shooting Caleb in anger or having him put down without telling her.

At this point, Caleb could have been shuttled from one ill-prepared owner to another or consigned to a kill pen. The story could have ended with Winslow investing tons of money, time, and energy only to miss an authentic connection with Caleb.

Fortunately, Caleb’s truth-to-power influence sneaks up on Winslow during a tiresome faculty meeting. She surprises herself by speaking up for the students and the love of learning, even though she recognizes the consequences may be negative.

Then, in the donkey trainer’s ring, she looks the perpetually angry daughter in the eye and says, “No.”

That day, Winslow and Caleb ride not into the sunset but into a new understanding. The human realizes the power of her heretofore negative expectations of the donkey’s behavior, and the donkey recognizes that the human trusts him and has his back.

Here Winslow wisely relates the story of Balaam’s donkey (Numbers 22:21-38), who spoke to her owner. It wasn’t just because the donkey was being mistreated by him, but because she could see and hear the angel and he could not.

It’s worth our time and effort to listen to the donkey. We might learn something about ourselves, too.

The naming of horses

2019 08.14 Dolly 3 - edited

I caught Dolly in the middle of lunch with hay on her face, but her star quality shines through.

There are many rules for naming racehorses, but none for your average equine citizen. From what I’ve observed, horses often get new names when they get new people, new homes, new jobs, a second chance, or any combination of these. Some retired racehorses, like my friends Beau and Pirate, go by shorter versions of their racing names.

This isn’t unique to horses. Look at the way we humans take on and drop nicknames, take spouses’ names, reclaim family names, hyphenate, and depending on who’s talking, go by names like Mom.

One horse I know chose a name his new person wouldn’t have picked in a million years. Another came by hers through blonde star synchronicity. Yet another, when given the choice, kept the name she had.

Duke

I felt the sadness of the 17-year-old shire as soon as Allison Wheaton, director of Summit Equestrian Center, sent me his photo. After years as an Amish farm horse, and apparently not the best of situations, he was to become Summit’s newest resident late last year.

Duke 04.05.19 v

This is Duke a few months after his arrival at Summit Equestrian Center. He still wasn’t out with the herd, but he’d decided he liked Reiki.

Allison asked me to communicate with him before he arrived and find out what he needed in the transition, and what he might like to do. And would he like a new name, or would he prefer to keep the one he had (Angmar)?

The notion that he had a choice about anything was a strange concept to this heavy-hearted soul. Yet when I asked him what he wanted to be called, I heard: “Just call me Duke.”

I passed that along. Since most school/sports rivalries are not on my radar, it didn’t occur to me that Allison, a University of North Carolina grad, might wince at the name of her alma mater’s chief rival. As I learned later, she had vowed never to name a dog, horse, or anything else Duke. But Duke it was.

As fall deepened into winter, Duke acclimated and found his footing as a therapy horse. He found he appreciated being listened to and liked Reiki, especially once he realized it was his choice. Getting him to the point where he could join the rest of the horses in the pasture took months, many introductions, and a few scuffles.

Then one day this spring, Duke caught my eye from across the pasture. He was standing up straight, ears forward, with the rest of the crew.

“Do you see where I am? Do. You. See. Where. I. Am?” I heard.

Yes, Duke … I see you.

Dolly

Malibu, a Tennessee Walker-Belgian cross, had a few different homes by the time she joined the Summit herd. No one seemed to have time for her, and now she had no idea where she belonged.

Three or four days later, “Hello, Dolly!” — from the musical of the same name — got stuck in my head. I listened to the album over and over as a child and saw Carol Channing in what many consider her signature role as Dolly. But I hadn’t heard it recently or thought of it much.

The day after that, I received a text from Allison that the newcomer had settled in a bit, but Malibu didn’t seem like the right name. “Dolly? There’s got to be a sassy blonde star name that fits better,” she said.

I told her about the musical and sent a video link to the song. It includes the lyric “Tomorrow will be brighter than the good old days.”

Allison was thinking of Dolly Parton and I was thinking of the fictional Dolly Levi — but both seemed to fit. So Dolly it was, and she’s already shed stardust on a couple of participants in Summit’s veterans program.

Lulu

Some horses keep their names. Lulu, a beautiful paint mare, was rescued from a horrible neglect situation. As Lulu began a new chapter at Summit, Allison asked me to see if she wanted a new name as well … like Cheyenne?

2019 07.26 Lulu & my hand copy

Lulu has been learning to trust again.

When I asked Lulu, she told me she knew who she was and it didn’t matter what the humans called her. Cheyenne was fine, but she was also fine with sticking with Lulu, so that’s what we did.

Recovery is all about ups and downs, and less than two years later, Lulu’s is no exception. She has a good buddy in Pirate, one of the aforementioned retired racehorses, and she’s helped some of Summit’s human clients heal their own wounds. Every time I check in with her, even if she is struggling with the effects of her past, I see her choose to give her new life — still as Lulu — a chance.

You tell me …

How did your horse friends get their names … or new names?