For the past three years, I have lived in a small guest house on a little ranch in Tempe. There are currently 12 horses on the property, which is divided into nine pastures. With the exception of two stallions – Splash and Rough-n-Ready – each horse shares pasture space with at least one other horse.
A group of five horses – all females – share a large pasture next to the main residence. I refer to them as “The Girls Club.’’ Part of my duties is to feed the horses and while it’s no secret that horses share some of the emotions humans experience, my exposure to these horses has revealed some human qualities I never previously associated with the equine world.
It’s no secret that horses can be contented or afraid or angry, of course. But what I have learned is that horses can also be covetous, petty and, unless I miss my mark, even introspective.
And nowhere is this more evident than when observing The Girls Club. I suppose I could share my perspective on this to make a point, but I believe there is a better point to be made from examining this little society from the point of view of one of its members.
And the point I want to make is about Christmas.
Now that I have piqued your curiosity, let me introduce The Girls Club, starting with the member from whose perspective I will attempt to consider the topic.
I mentioned that there are 12 horses on the ranch, but it is not so: There are 11 horses and Burrita. She is not a horse at all, but a burro.
Now, if you were able to conjure your inner Dr. Doolittle and ask Burrita to introduce her group, she would probably start with Chanta.
At 17 years old, Chanta, is the matriarch of the group and the dominant presence in the pasture. She is smart and wise and seems to understand the humans on the ranch to the point that she is able to anticipate their moves and wishes.
Chanta is the unquestioned boss of The Girls Club. She eats first and woe unto the horse who tries to infringe on her exalted station. The other horses have learned to treat her with great deference.
Next in the hierarchy is Dolly, a black-and-white paint who had a foal last year and is poised to take over the reigns of power someday.
Lena, a newcomer to the group, is a big athletic bay. She was an excellent cow pony in her previous life. She is now pregnant and will produce a fall next October.
Then there is Princess, who although she has reached her maturity is a tiny little horse. Her sweet nature and calm disposition make her an ideal horse for the small children. She is big enough to ride but no so big as to be intimidating to a little child. If she had a pink mane, Princess would be the pony of every little girl’s fantasy.
There is Brynnie, a yearling and Dolly’s foal. Sweet-tempered and beautifully painted, Brynnie is the apple of all eyes on the ranch.
And that leads us finally to Burrita, who occupies the bottom space on the equine totem pole.
She is short – she comes up to about waist high on the average person – and impossibly round. In fact, she is so overweight that the owners have put her on a diet. While the other horses get a flake of alfalfa twice a day, Burrita gets half that – if she is lucky. Sometimes, she is nudged away from her modest portion by another horse that has grown bored with her own rations and has decided to take over Burrita’s.
Funny thing, though, Burrita doesn’t seem ever lose any weight. Sound familiar?
While the other horses boast smooth, shiny coats, poor Burrita’s coat is thick and rough coat and a dull, listless gray. What’s more, her coat seems to have some sort of magnetic quality when it comes to dust. Pat her on her rump and a the Los Angeles skyline seems to emerge. Imagine Charles Schulz’s “Pig Pen’’ character as a burro and you’ve got it about right.
While the other horses vocalize by nickering and whinnying - sounds that are strangely soothing to the ear - the noise that emanates from Burrita’s earnest lips are loud, harsh. If there were an animal version of American Idol, Burrita would be one of those contestants whose audition is aired purely for the sake of public ridicule.
Poor Burrita, huh?
Now, I have no way of knowing if Burrita ever views herself in relation to her pasture mates. But if horses can suffer from fits of anger or fear, it is at least conceivable that they may also suffer from esteem issues.
And if that’s true, it must be painfully obvious to Burrita that she is never going to be the leader of The Girls Club like Chanta. She’s never going to be a mom like Dolly. She’s never going to be athletic like Lena. She won’t be the horse children want to ride like Princess. She won’t be beautiful like Brynnie.
But here is the interesting part: Aside from when she is muscled away from her hay, Burrita seems happy enough. She’s playful in a comic sort of way. She is gentle. She’ll even let you play with her ridiculously long ears, which I would imagine would be something she would be inclined to be self-conscious about.
Yes, she seems pretty happy and if you will permit some license here, I will offer one explanation:
Each year, a nearby Lutheran Church puts on a Nativity Play and Burrita is loaned out as a cast member for a couple of weeks. She is not the star of the show, obviously, but she is a bona fide scene-stealer as far as the younger audience members are concerned. Before and after the show, dozens of little hands compete to spoil old Burrita. They will pat her on her head, rub her dusty coat and treat her with carrots and apple slices.
Imagine that! This is the sort of honor to which regal Chanta, maternal Dolly, athletic Lena, gentle Princess or pretty Brynnie can never aspire. When it comes to the Nativity Play, only short, fat, dusty, bleating Burrita will do.
Does this seem odd to you?
Then stop for a moment and think of what that manger scene really represents.
I want you to peel away the traditions and trappings that have been heaped upon this day, mainly to appease secular sensibilities.
You know what I am talking about. Recently, I’ve seen depictions of Santa Claus kneeling at the manger. I suppose in future depictions we will see Frosty the Snowman and The Grinch jostling with the shepherds for a closer look at the Christ child.
Put all that foolishness aside and look at the scene. Those who can see it for what it really is and for what it really means are blessed.
It is speculation of the wildest, most irresponsible sort to even suggest that Burrita can grasp the spiritual implications of the manger scene.
Still, I like to think that when the Nativity Play is over and Burrita returns to the ranch, she tells her pasture mates all about her role in the manger scene. I doubt they believe it for a moment. Horses, like people, may be skeptics for all I know.
I don’t think it bothers Burrita, though. She knows the truth. It is enough.
For a couple of weeks out of the year, at least, Burrita understands that she is loved apart from all the qualities that demean her among her peers. And that knowledge is enough to sustain her for the other 50 weeks.
And if Burrita can get all that from the manger scene, imagine what it can mean to the human heart.
“Behold,’’ proclaimed the Angel of the Lord, “I bring you glad tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.’’
Did you get that? ALL people.
Even the short, fats ones who can’t sing and need a bath…