Friday, February 11, 2011


I’m a horse girl.

I was raised with horses. Some families had dirt bikes, some hiked, others had a cabin by some lovely lake, but we Browns have always had horses. Our vacations were spent horseback in the high country riding the trails of the Northwest’s great wilderness areas. In all the moves of a pastor’s family, we never moved someplace we couldn’t have horses.
So when we moved to Anchorage it was on the condition that some time, some way, we’d figure out how to have horses. I just couldn’t imagine my kids not growing up with horses. Gary graciously agreed, my in-laws laughed.  He promised me we could have the horses just as soon as we could find a place for them. How hard could it be? It took four years and a few more sacrifices than I anticipated but I got my wish.
I’ve had a lot of folks ask what it’s like to own horses in Alaska so I decided it was time to document the highs and lows or Alaskan horse husbandry.
First I let me say I am not the only person who owns horses in Alaska, not by a long shot. But there aren’t a lot of them around. Ironically owning horses here is not unlike my brother and sister-in-law having horses in Riverside, CA.

For one thing property is scarce – never would’ve thought my 1.3 acres was “horse property” but it is in Anchorage. I find it completely bizarre that I live in the largest state in the country – sorry Texas, see attached graphic – and there would be a shortage of land.  And yet, it’s true. Finding enough space with proper zoning is no small feat in this city.
Feed is obviously another issue. Hay is not as readily available as it is in the Northwest. We do have our hay farmers in the Mat-Su Valley and around Fairbanks. Even so, the cost of feed is about double in the best of scenarios and clearly we don’t have the pasture on our 1.3 acres to offset that. Truthfully even if we did, it would be covered in snow about 9 months of the year so it wouldn’t help much. This is one reason I traded in my large model Tennessee Walkers for more compact, arctic friendly Icelandic models. They eat about half as much! While I don’t have pasture, I do have a large yard with a perimeter fence. I am now the crazy lady who turns her horses out on the lawn whenever possible.
This brings me to another challenge of horse ownership in Alaska. There is a marked lack of practical horse education around here. I became aware of this just after my horses arrived at our home. A friend of ours came running to the front door yelling for me!
“Denise, Denise! Come quick! There’s something wrong with the horses!”
I went, quickly.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“You have to stop them!” she pleaded frantically. “They’re eating grass! You have to stop them before they get sick!”
After assuring her the horses would be just fine. I asked what she thought horses were supposed to eat.
I explained to her the connection of hay and grass. She accepted my explanation with skepticism.
Another challenge with owning horses here is other horse owners. Because there are so few around, there is a disproportionate amount of elitism attached to it. This, in turn, gives horse owners undue authority. It can be frustrating to have someone explain to you – in very simple language – aspects of horsemanship you’ve had a handle on since you were a small child, just because you’re a new face in the one tack shop in town.
However, I do have more patience for it after a few years watching what goes on around here! The best example I can think of was the day I found myself in the same one and only tack shop of Anchorage when an obviously angry middle-aged woman burst through the door. She rushed to the counter and slammed down a nylon headstall with a curb bit and reins.
“This doesn’t work!” She yelled at the poor lady behind the counter.
Clearly counter lady was used to this – or perhaps she is just confrontational, we may never know – because she responded in kind.
“What the hell do you mean it doesn’t work?” she yelled back.
“I put it on my daughter’s horse just like you told me and it still wouldn’t do what she told it too!”
“Well did the horse do anything she told it too before she put the bridle on?” tack shop lady yelled back.
“NO! Why the *&#@ do you think I bought this thing?”
Tack shop lady smiled, paused, and then decided on another line of questioning. I listened in, of course. She asked how old the horse was – 12. Had it been trained?
“No, I don’t think so,” said angry mom.  “You mean like to stay and stuff?”
Oh my.
After a few minutes of Q&A, their voices began decreasing in volume. Tack shop lady was able to calmly explain to angry mom that 12-year-old untrained horses, when bridled the first time will not simply begin responding as a trained horse would. She then suggested some people around town who offered lessons and trained horses. Angry mom left with a thank you – and the bridle.
Due to said lack of horse exposure we have found ourselves quite the curiosity. Truth be told, it’s rather fun to have folks stop by asking to see the horses. It gives me a great excuse to enjoy them a little extra time.
Being the center of curiosity is not always the best thing though. When we first moved to our home, the horses were not exactly welcomed with opened arms by all the surrounding neighbors. It was a trying process, but after about a year their cuteness won over the neighbors who had been not so keen on them. This may have had something to do with the fact that I was able to clear up one neighbor’s misconception about my horses being trained “guard horses.” We’ll never really know.
Hmm…I wonder how that might have started? I don’t think it had anything to do with my comments in response to said neighbor’s question about whether or not they bite. I simply said they were not trained yet. Which was true!
I can’t take all the blame anyway because it seems fear is a fairly common response. One day my mother-in-law and a long-time family friend came to the house to take a steam. I went out to the driveway to greet them and found them staring at the horses – about 30 feet from the fence.
“Alice, would you like to go meet the horses?” I asked.
“Why not,” I asked. “They’re friendly and there’s a huge fence between you and them.”
Alice left my reassurance hanging for several seconds in keeping with what I call the “Yupik pause before rebuke.”
She began.
“Those things look like little moose,” she informed me. “I’ve seen plenty of moose jump things higher than that fence. There is no way I’m getting close to them.”
And with that she went to the steam.
Excellent point.
So now, nearly 3 years later, Brenna and Flikka may not be favorites of the Yupik side of the family but still they’ve found their place in the community. They get regular visitors and even people who just stop while driving by. They’ve grown accustomed the joyful sounds of squealing little boys and girls on their backs and they relish the many dandelion salads prepared for them.
Throughout my entire life of horse ownership, I don’t know that I’ve had more fun. Seeing the love for them through children’s eyes – my own and other people’s - is even better than I dreamed it would be. So stop by and say hello. Bring some carrots even, but please no candy, no hair bows, not even lip gloss. And, sadly, no, we cannot have sleep over with them.



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