The Wonder Horse and I shared a Moment today.
We don’t have too many Moments. Huey…well, in his first life, I think Huey was probably traded around like a baseball card. He’s a highly-bred professional athlete, and my take on the Professional Equestrian world is that it’s a rare, rare thing when someone competes with the same horse for years and years. You do see it at the very top levels of the sport, but at the lower-but-still-high levels it doesn’t seem to be quite the thing. It was clear, when Huey came to us, that he didn’t have any concept of Member Of The Family Status at all. He acted like a horse that was used to having to be extremely sensitive and completely obedient under the saddle…but the rest of the time? It was clear that no one had bothered to invest in that. No manners to speak of – unless you want to speak of bad manners. No concept of bonding and affection – and I’m talking about the horsey kind of those things, not the 8 year old horse girl kind of those things.
Under saddle, he was a High Performance Equine Machine with a lot of Go.
In the cross-ties, he was a steady, patient stander for the farrier, vet, and groomer.
Otherwise, he was demanding, impulsive, disrespectful, and barely seemed to notice the person who was handling him, regardless of who that person was. He wasn’t interested in expressions of human affection, even the kinds that are often appealing to horses, like scratching. He certainly didn’t dish out any obvious sort of equine affection. He was mouthy, and would attempt to mug anyone for treats, but demanded them instead of asking politely.
Nevertheless, we liked each other. I still remember this, riding him in a lesson, and my trainer marveling at how much Huey seemed to like me. And I liked him right back. There was a lot of like there, but it wasn’t an up-close and personal sort of “like”. It was more of a “potentiality” sort of “like”. Sort of a “recognizing” kind of “like”. It was enough of a “like” that when I found out he was to be sold, I was instantly appalled that Some Other Person would have him for their horse. And thus, he became mine, and I became his.
My riding instructor is also a horse trainer, and one of the first things I did was invest in some Manners for Huey. It was incredible to watch him get his perspective adjusted. I can’t really do it justice with words. If you go watch a few Buck Brannaman videos on YouTube you’ll see what I mean. Huey came out of that with a New Awareness of the need to pay attention to the person on the end of the lead line, and a vocabulary involving Directions And How To Follow Them. I got training for myself at the same time, and came out of it with a New Awareness of the need to pay attention to the signals I’m sending the horse, and a vocabulary involving Directions And How To Give Them. It was one of the best investments I’ve made for Huey. Right up there with getting a custom flocking job on his saddle so it fits properly.
Around that time, he was turned out with a mare – a little Chincoteague pony who put her own training on him. I spent hours just watching her boss him around. She would move him from Point A to Point B, in a way that would be pure caprice to humans…but it became clear that this capricious movement was, in part, directed at constantly reinforcing his awareness that there was a Boss On Deck, and it wasn’t him. I took notes. I also took note of how short her patience was with him: she expected instant obedience to her instructions. There wasn’t ever any second request. She would tell him to move his big red butt, and if he did not comply immediately, she’d lay those ears back while turning herself around and firing off a double-barreled blast at his side with both back hooves. It was “move.” 1-2-BLAMMO. And I took note that after a few of these, as soon as she said “move” he MOVED.
And so, we entered into our new life together with a dawning concept of Respect on his part, and an awareness of the need to be consistent on mine. And it was fine.
The one thing, though, when my trainer was teaching him some manners, is that she couldn’t get him to “hook on” to her, as she put it. I gathered that certain types of behavior and body language typically result in the horse developing some kind of (possibly temporary) attachment to the person on the ground, and that instead of getting attached, he tuned out. I could see it. He turned his head away a hair, not enough to show disrespect, but to avoid the lure. He wasn’t available for that. He wasn’t accessible. He behaved, but he didn’t warm up.
I remember the first time he started to thaw even a little. It was an early winter morning in the barn, waiting on the farrier to arrive first thing. The horses were all in their stalls, not even quite awake for breakfast. I just stood at Huey’s stall. If I had the halter, he’d stand still and cooperate, but otherwise, he wasn’t spending any time sharing space with me. Usually, he’d move away if I just stood there. This time, he approached me. I put out my hand tentatively. Usually he’d move away from that too – unless I was grooming him or otherwise doing some kind of work-y thing. This time, he just stood there. I scratched his neck. He didn’t move. I scratched some more. He didn’t respond in any way at all, other than not moving away.
It was our first Moment.
Over the years, he’s slowly but surely engaged with me more. It’s been hard to know how to show him what it means to be a Member of the Family rather than Instrument of Victory. These are very different worlds, and he wasn’t any spring chicken when we got together. Over the years, he’s listened to me better, and talked to me more. He’s accepted my human demonstrations of affection, while not really returning them, and I’ve been fine with that. I know that a kiss has no real meaning in Horse Language, and most of the stuff that does mean “I like you!” in Horse is stuff that I don’t let him do around me because it’s dangerous. Biting, shoving, there’s a reason they call it “horsing around” when kids are playing very physically with each other. All I asked is that he stand still for a kiss and not pull away. And over the years, he has.
I remember hand-grazing him last summer after a ride. I’d hosed him down to cool off, and was letting him at the salad bar until he was dry. A woman whose kids were getting a riding lesson stopped by and asked if this was my horse. I told her with pride that he was. She said she could tell, that we had a Bond. I wondered what on earth she could have been talking about. I felt, largely, that what we had was an Ongoing Conversation rather than a Bond.
Then I got some professional portraits late last fall, and I could see it too. I do have a Bond with Huey. It positive burns off the screen in some of these pictures. And looking at it, in succession of maybe 200 pictures taken over 2 hours or more, it’s so visible that I don’t wonder that perfect strangers could see it.
We’ve made a few advances even since then, when the pictures were taken. Back in the day, when I approached the paddock and greeted him with a “Hey Buddy!” he might look up from his grazing, glance at me, and go back to his business. He might just ignore me entirely. Now, as often as not, he stops what he’s doing and comes over to the gate to greet me. The other day, he even trotted over to the gate. Horses don’t smile with their lips, but he was smiling with his whole self.
There was a Moment a few weeks ago, when I was untacking and cleaning him up after a ride. No matter where I went, there was his nose, right there, right in front of my face. He was very patiently moving it around, making sure that it was right there at all possible moments. Eventually, the penny dropped for me. He wanted to sniff noses, which is basically a sort of Horse Kiss. Or, it can be. With a certain kind of Sniff, it’s a Horse Kiss-My-Ass. This wasn’t that kind of sniff. It’s the first time I remember him wanting to, well, bond.
And today, he was itchy and very happy to be getting curried. The bugs have been bad, and if you do it right, currying is kind of like scratching. The good kind of scratching, not the kind that make people say “Don’t scratch that!”. Usually Huey cooperates with getting his face curried. He doesn’t like it, but he tolerates it because I tell him he has to. Some horses really like to get their forelock scratched, but he’s Not That Kind Of Horse. I keep trying, just in case, and he keeps tolerating it, sort of. He tolerates it for about 3 scratches, then he puts his head in the air like a giraffe. He used to do that all the time when I got him. Now, he hardly ever does it. I regard that as a Success.
But anyway, I tried again today. This time, to my shock, he dropped his head immediately, rested his face on my front, and I swear, if he was a cat, he’d have been purring. He stood like that until my hand got tired. I switched to the other hand, he put his face back on my front, and started not-quite-purring. He has never done anything like that before. Ever. It was a Moment.
I begin to think that he’s starting to understand what it means to be a Member of the Family. I begin to think that the penny has finally dropped for him that he doesn’t have to prove himself, that he doesn’t have to worry about when he’s going to have to go somewhere else, that he’s with me, and really, he will always be with me now. No more getting traded, no more moving around, just us, doing whatever it is that we do. I begin to think he’s learning about affection, and why it’s good.