Praise for the Expressers

My black mare, Dicey, is an expresser.

I’ve cared for six different horses at this point, and I had the chance to know all of them pretty well during the time they were at our barn. All of them have had likes and dislikes, funny quirks, and different problems…just like any other animal, human or otherwise.

We have Dicey’s age pegged at about 24. She’s not papered as far as I know–we wound up with her because some other people were tired of taking care of her. The previous owners wanted a chance for her to be on pasture, which I’ve got.

She’s a coarsely-built mare–sturdy legs, big head, and round as a barrel. She has one of those low facial whorls that looks more like a long feather (I think I remember Linda Tellington writing that any horse with a whorl like this who isn’t willing and affectionate needs to have a history check for abuse). I know she’s had at least one baby, and that she was ridden in a saddle that pinched her withers (she has the white-hair scarring to prove it). But other than that, everything else about her is just a guess.

The first thing I noticed about Dice was how bossy she was with the horse she was living with when we went to pick her up. Even though she could barely walk (she hadn’t been trimmed in some time) she gimped all over the pen after the Appy gelding that was in her “care.” We all were grinning about that while we watched them.

At the time, I’d been looking for an older horse that was in fairly decent shape to babysit my fillies.  I’d had to put down the Polish arab I’d wound up with because he kept blowing through fencing–he was nearly blind and deaf and built like a Mack truck. He could go through the fence without a scratch, but the girls would wind up with horrendous cuts and wire marks on their lower legs, and my neighbors were  tired of waking up in the morning to find my horses looking in their kitchen window.

Dicey followed me into the trailer like she’d always been my horse. Once she’d been trimmed, her gait improved tenfold. And I began the long process of getting to know this interesting mare.

I had accidentally wound up with exactly the horse that I needed. I didn’t feel right about the “girls” being out in the pasture without an older horse–and yes, they were two and old enough to take care of themselves, but there are dangers all the same–snakes, skunks, fence problems, wild neighbor kids, strange farm equipment. Dicey is one of the most solid horses I’ve ever seen as far as remaining calm in emergencies.

But Dicey also turned out to be a taskmaster.  My paint filly, Friday, is an intelligent and independent type who had been  acting as the arab’s caretaker. She would always try to help when he was having problems seeing where he was going. Although Andy would occasionally try to boss her around, it was easy to see his heart wasn’t in it–even though he towered over her, he just wasn’t interested in discipline. I never saw Friday be aggressive with Andy, but there were many times when he wouldn’t bother chasing her off from his feed or when he would allow her to bull into his space.

Dicey,  on the other hand, immediately took charge. She saw Friday for what she was–a young filly that needed her guidance, and plenty of it. I know some folks hate it when their horses pop up with any ding or scratch from pasture-dust-ups, but Friday is a tough enough nut that I’m actually glad to see her missing a patch of hair now and then. I am a firm believer that this kind of older-horse schooling makes it easier for a young horse to mind their manners no matter what situation they might find themselves in (either with other horses or people). It teaches them to pay attention at all times and not to overstep their bounds–and older horses also “show” younger horses that they’re not concerned about Tractor X or Skunk Y and that they’re to be ignored.

And then there is the fact that Dicey also has this incredible ability to exude affection.  I know my younger two horses enjoy my company, but I’ve never had a horse that was able to radiate “glad you’re here” quite the same way Dicey does. I’ve tried really hard to figure out what it is–is it her half-closed eyes when I bend down to scratch around her front feet? (For some reason she really enjoys this.) The way she nickers? The way she’s always interested and likes to “try out” obstacles I’ve set up for the fillies to work on?

She doesn’t run up to me in the pasture or go into hysterics when I show up, which Friday and Dove will often do. She enjoys treats, but doesn’t get overly excited about those, either.

So what is it? Am I just projecting onto this mare because I like her? Does this kind of intense feeling of affinity have something to do with particle physics and spinning atoms or something? I’ve never been on her back (I wouldn’t ride her anyway, as sore as her front foot is). I’ve never done much with her other than have her around when I’ve been working with the younger horses. I’ve only known her for a couple of years.

I’m not sure what it is. I just know she really appreciates me in a way that is special and different from any of the other horses I’ve taken care of and worked with.

The other night I scratched around her feet and just stayed down there, resting on my haunches, and she gently breathed into my hair. We stayed like that for a long time.

There is something about that acceptance and closeness with a horse that can inoculate a human being with serenity. Good thing, too–I’ve needed more than my share of that this summer.

A lovely horse is always an experience…. It is an emotional experience of the kind that is spoiled by words.  ~Beryl Markham

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Praise for the Expressers

  1. I truly believe that some horses just mesh with certain people…..and I think the relationship you have with Dicey is beautiful. So many people are so caught up in riding and participating in specific disciplines that they rarely slow things down long enough to really try and connect with their horse. I’m sometimes curious how these folks would react if they were plucked out of their current world of horses and placed in a situation where they would have to care solely for a horse with special needs (and one that can’t be ridden). I really DO believe that if faced with this experience, some people would change at least some aspects of their personality. …and of course some wouldn’t…sadly…
    When my sister was younger and participated in 4-H, she rode a pinto gelding that belonged to a gentleman I worked for. This horse was 1 of 7 that he owned…and part of my job was to work with all 7. In the 2 years she showed and worked with this horse, they developed an amazing bond.
    ….and I couldn’t do half the things with him that she could.
    ….in fact I really didn’t really enjoy riding him. He bucked me off. A LOT.
    I was both thrilled and a little scared when my sister picked him to use as her 4-H horse.
    –Now my sister didn’t have any more experience with horses than I did and in fact, she had way less. …but still she had this amazing bond with this guy that I couldn’t even come close to.
    My reasoning in all of it was that I was a more “serious” rider then. I got paid to ride, and work with the horses. Gayle (my sister) was just there — borrowing this one to show with the owner’s permission. While I worked on things and tried to bond a little with the horses — it was still “work” in the end. …and the horses knew this….
    Gayle, however, could play with the this guy and have fun with him. He had a very mischievous personality and I think he really preferred Gayle’s company to mine…
    Maybe things would have been different if he had been our horse, or if I didn’t have several others to work with — I really don’t know. My instinct though, is that he still would have preferred Gayle’s company over mine. They’re personalities were just a perfect fit.
    I’m glad Dicey found you. It sounds like you are the best human match she’s ever had….and perhaps it was a little bit of fate that brought both of you together 🙂

    • I think you’re spot on, Carol. I think horses are very sensitive to the distinction of work and play. Life can’t be all fun and games, for sure–our equine buddies have to work and follow safety rules–but that element of joy and play is so important for a relationship with a horse. For anyone, really. Easy to forget we’re animals, too 🙂

      I meant to put in my post that out of my small herd of cats, I have a cat that does this “expresser” thing too–only he does it with EVERYONE. I’ve known probably about 20 cats now quite intimately and we’ve never seen a cat like this one. My big teenaged boys fight over who gets to hold him. We hand-raised Otto and I always wondered if that had something to do with it (and his laid-back-as-butter personality), but I’ve seen other hand-raised cats that were more normal.

  2. Dicey sounds like a wonderful old soul who appreciates you for what you’ve done for her. And I’m sure she picks up on your feelings for her too. I love an older mare to teach the younger kids how to stay in line and be polite. When we had Sweetie with us she really kept Sami in line when he was being a little monster. He would go after Grady who is 18 hands to his 14.2 but he was terrified of Sweetie who could barely walk and was about 25 years old. One look from her had him scurrying for cover.

    • I’ve wondered what it is about these mares–Dicey does whatever she can to avoid taking unnecessary steps with her painful front foot, and I know the fillies know that. I wish Dice would teach me the crusty stare technique–I have a couple of teenagers I’d like to use it on!

  3. I don’t think you’re projecting, but I do think horses feel the intensity of our affection toward them and respond back by opening up their personalities to us. “My” horses know they’re mine and greet me happily and are very expressive. My husband’s and daughter’s…not so much.

  4. I think it’s just like with other people, there are those that I instantly want to be great friends with once I meet them and others I’d rather never see again. Since horses have personalities just like we do I don’t see why they would be any different.

    Pet and owner bonds are funny, my husband and I have two cats but one is “his” while one is “mine,” sure they’ll rub up on the other person every once in a while but they have their preferences.

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