I was reading this post on Horsecentric about a rider who’s working to overcome her fear after a bad incident with her horse, and that started me thinking about why we humans bother with horses.
I’ve written quite a bit lately about Dicey, my 24+ year-old grade mare. I suspect she’s partially Appy (I know she was bred once to an Appy, and she has freckled lips) but other than that, just about the only things I know about her have been things I’ve figured out on my own.
Friday’s mom, Channy, was my first horse. Channy was another sensible black mare. I gave her away to a great home a few years ago, in part because I had the feeling she just wasn’t happy with me. She had a tremendous work ethic, and would try to do whatever I asked her to do. But she was used hard as a young horse, and I think at some point she just sort of gave up on people. I felt like a traitor giving her away—she was a really obedient mare—but I couldn’t shake the feeling that she wasn’t happy. She was a generous enough mare that she wound up nursing both of them after I brought Dove home as a skinny three-month-old, but even with the two younger horses, she remained strangely closed off.
One of my favorite pictures of Channy...Friday's mom...and my first horse.
One of my friends said that’s just how some mares are, and I’ve read that some QH mares have a reputation for being all business, but I have never sensed this same sort of detachment from the fillies or from Dicey. I’m sure I made a ton of mistakes with Channy because she was my first horse, but I think the one phrase that sums it up the best is that she always seemed to be waiting for everyone to leave her alone.
I felt plenty guilty when I brought Dicey home, in part because she looks so much like Channy. I’ve never even ridden Dicey (she has ringbone in her front feet), but even so, I’m much closer to her than I ever was with Channy.
It’s apparent from the telltale white scar-spots on Dicey’s withers that she was ridden in an ill-fitting saddle, and probably ridden a lot. Yet she has a completely different demeanor than Channy. She happens to be one of bossiest mares I have ever seen (I’m guessing in part because her feet hurt, so she has to rely a lot more on face-making and head tossing to get the job done).
When I first got Dice, she would violently yank her head away if she didn’t want me putting fly ointment in her ears or around her eyes. She’d often try to take off whenever I tried to halter her. Once she even half-heartedly turned her butt to me…and these are all behaviors Channy never would’ve considered in her wildest dreams. Yet I immediately felt different when I was with her–it was if I could sense that she liked ME, even if she didn’t like what I did to her sometimes.
The first time I had an inkling about what Dicey was really like was one day after I set up some ground poles. My young Walker mare has always been uncoordinated—sometimes so uncoordinated that she puts herself in danger when she’s spooking (not to mention the fragile human holding on to the lead rope). I read in one of Linda Tellington’s books that working a horse over poles really can help with clumsiness, which sounded like just the ticket.
So I set up some “poles”…unfortunately, not the lovely peppermint-striped posts like you see in the books. Out at my place, my options are pretty much limited to old fencing stringers. I haltered Dove up and marched for the poles, which I’d set up in the middle of the arena.
And Dicey, this old mare who is often so lame that she avoids taking any unnecessary steps, immediately fell in behind us as I walked Dove across the poles. Although Dove’s feet clunked on just about every pole, Dicey carefully stepped over each one—painful front feet or no.
I was amazed, and I couldn’t help laughing. I figured that Dice was just curious about what I was doing. But I walked Dove back and forth across those boards probably about ten times that day, and Dicey followed our every step. She placed her painful feet carefully over every board.
I stopped and looked at this fat little old mare, shaking my head in amazement. What the hell was her motivation, given that her feet were obviously bothering her a great deal that day? Was she showing off? Trying to help me show Dove what I wanted her to do? Offering the young, clumsy mare a little moral support?
I also knew it was significant that her involvement in the exercise had been immediate. She had watched me set up the poles, but she didn’t watch me walk Dove over them first–she probably had no idea what I had in mind. She was right behind Dove, ready to go, the minute I had Dove ready to go over the poles…almost like she had known exactly why I’d set them up.
There wasn’t any gate nearby. There wasn’t any indication I was getting ready to take Dove out of the arena, and Dicey never had seemed to pay any attention when I haltered the fillies to work with them on other things in the arena before that day.
Then a couple of months later I had Dove tied up at one end of the arena, and I realized that harobed trucks were clattering up the road. The guys had just arrived to start picking up bales in the adjacent timothy field. Although I knew Dove has seen these trucks her whole life, harobeds tend to rattle and squeak like the apocalypse—and on top of that, harobbeders all drive like maniacs.
Just imagine five of these flying down the road.
I knew wasn’t going to be able to get back over to Dove in time to untie her before the trucks turned into the driveway, and I realized that we were about to have a Teaching Moment—the kind where you have to stand and watch and pray your horse doesn’t commit suicide right in front of you.
I watched in disbelief as Dicey popped out of their shelter and carefully positioned herself next to Dove. She gave Dove some room for her inevitable mortal-terror spook. As the rattling, groaning, squealing trucks passed within twenty feet of them, Dicey stood rock-steady. Dove nearly pulled the rail-tie fencepost out of the ground, but she had to watch how she swung her body around, because Dicey never flinched and she had positioned herself in the way. The watch-out-for-mean-older-mare lessons she had taught the fillies day after day, hour after hour, meant that Dicey could incite just as much fear in Dove as a rattling truck.
My farrier wondered aloud one day why I kept winding up with “charity cases” like Dicey—horses that were of no “use” and just cost money to feed and care for.
“I think she does a good job of babysitting the other two,” I ventured.
“Seems like they’re getting old enough that they don’t need babysitting, really,” he said.
“Maybe,” I said, thinking about Dove and the harobedders, and how Dicey had put herself at risk in order to help the filly.
Then one evening I was trying to get some fly ointment in Dicey’s ears. Although she doesn’t enjoy it, we’ve worked together on it, and she’ll tolerate it now (I never halter them when I flyspray or do this kind of thing—I just expect them to learn how to stand still). When I’d finished, I stepped back. Dicey looked at me, and almost angrily reached down and rubbed her muzzle against the side of one of her front legs.
“Are you telling me your leg is itchy?” I asked out loud. I reached down and scratched her leg where she’d rubbed it. I looked up at her face and saw her eyes were closed.
Holy cow, I thought, this horse is actually telling me she wants me to scratch her leg!
I stood back up. She looked at me again, and did the same exact thing with her nose. I scratched her leg again, and I could almost see the waves of gratitude coming off of her as she closed her eyes again.
I had the sneaking suspicion that she was thinking about the same thing I was. I never thought the human could figure out something this complicated!
It’s funny, I don’t even like looking at photos of my horses, because the pictures seem so oddly flat and two-dimensional. Pictures almost seem like caricatures of what they are really like, because there isn’t any feeling in a picture. Horses communicate in movement, glances, ear swiveling, tail flicks—and all of that is completely missing from still photos.
On Song of the Black Horse, Katariina Alongi has written at length about what it’s like to be with her very sensitive and wonderful mare—a mare who one day even managed to communicate how unhappy she was that Katariina was talking on a cell phone!
I always remember the line from the Andrew Marvell poem “To His Coy Mistress” about having world enough and time. Horses are one way to experience that mystical state when there IS world enough and time. We pay for that in spades, of course—financially and emotionally–but it’s so totally worth it.
It’s so easy for us to forget when things are going wrong (we have a fall, an accident, someone gets hurt) the absolute and utter joy it is to be with horses. No agenda. No worries. No future…just the now.
“Life is also a mixture of unsolved problems, ambiguous victories and vague defeats—with very few moments of clear peace.” ~Hugh Prather