This is how it goes most days.
I arrive in the beat up black truck they know so well. As I climb out and get sorted (apples, check! tools for the day, check! water, check!), I hear the usual ear-piercing shriek of baby Firefly’s welcome whinny from across the field, where she’s standing as tall as she can to see over the blackberry bushes and verify my arrival.
I scream merrily back to her as I rifle in the truck, unashamed by now at my own less-than-musical vocalizations. Ever since I found my voice hollering across 200 acres of ranch at my various animal companions, I can’t seem to shut up – even though we’re now boarding in a suburban area. Sorry, folks.
“FLYzeeeeEE!” I whinny back, matching her sopranic tones, then adding for good measure, “Hey hey beautiful lady, hey babycakes, who’s my favourite little BEAN?!”
Total aside: vocalizations are normal for horses, and commonplace among family groups, but ever notice how our adult horses are largely silent with us and even with each other? Some horses nicker for food or neigh in distress, but the complex voices of our horses have largely been lost. Reduced social behaviour like vocalizing is a prevalent, if unintentional, byproduct of their fabricated environments and training that actively discourage or even punish normal touch, talk, and play.
All this commotion alerts Spoo, Oh Great Protector, who, when not vindictively gnawing on Baby’s crest or knocking everyone over to get to the feed first, is the Official Checker-Outer of All Things. He raises his stupidly beautiful hornless-unicorn head, sniffs the air like a skilled huntsman, detects a hint of apple skins and car exhaust, and sets off in search of Dear Human, Bringer of Tasty Morsels and Legpit Scratches (that’s my name, don’t wear it out).
Mama Molly trails behind her enthusiastic crew, ever unimpressed but loathe to miss out entirely.
They come, sometimes fleet of hoof and sometimes meandering, but I am, without fail, eventually surrounded by ears and noses, engulfed in horseflesh, gnawed upon lovingly, pulled in for hugs, invited to graze, presented with itchy spots, and generally argued over like a prize ham. Molly waits her turn so as to avoid the fray (frays aren’t ladylike), but I always make time and space to deliver her scratches when the other goons are distracted.
It is with such nonchalance that I go through the lovely motions and get chores done, horses fed and exercised, family naps had, whatever wants to happen today. Their friendly daily companionship is hardly anything to write home about – except for when I stop, take it in, and remember how fortunate I am.
Because it wasn’t always this way.
Back in the day, as I began this weird, wonderful, and occasionally emotionally traumatizing journey into equine relationship (starting with realizing I was not feeling fulfilled by the conventional riding approach and ending…well, never, nowhere, because of how proverbial rabbit holes function in principle), I would have murdered for a greeting like that. That they would one day run to me or follow me around an open field with no ropes or treats seemed like a pipe dream. That we would share space and mutual affection, that they would leave their grazing to come and hang, that I could be something they looked forward to…
See, they didn’t like me, before. Why should they have? They had no reason to assume I was there for any reason but to interfere with their groove, catch them with bribes or gentle coercion, utilize my latest understanding of my latest find in the endless trove of horsemanship tips called the internet, and usually end up with some variation of using restraint and pressure in a bizarre but highly endorsed bid to “build relationship”. I am not, for the record, spitting on any particular technique or approach (okay maybe just a little bit) – I am making a case for knowing what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and how it affects your horse and your relationship with said horse. I am also acknowledging how confusing and annoying I must have been in my very well-intentioned efforts – that did not, ironically, line up with my intentions.
I say this with humor now, but it was heartbreaking and confounding for me then: everything I found promised that relationship, but hardly anything felt like the truth. Even when I was being earnest, open and loving, they had had enough experience of both me and humans in general that a moment’s sweetness had little sway. I learned a lot in all this time, though – about myself, about horses, about these horses, about the mechanics, smoke and mirrors of an industry, and about the courage to keep on keepin’ on, even when you feel like a complete numbnuts (hot tip: acknowledge when you’re being a numbnuts, it’s the first step to recovery!). And all that said, I do feel fundamentally that they knew where I was headed and did everything in their power to hold me to it.
But I was missing the obvious, and the forest for the trees, while we’re at it – or should I say, the organic-and-unpredictable-development-of-a-real-relationship for the frantic-attempts-to-force-it-into-being.
In the end (which is a turn of phrase, not a reality, due to the aforementioned rabbit-hole nature of Loving Horses), it took time. Years.
It took patience.
It took deep (sweet jesus in his highchair, I mean d-e-e-p) innerwork.
It took carrots, scratches, then no carrots, then carrots only on every second Tuesday, and an abandonment of agenda, and some understanding of positive and negative reinforcement, and then it took discarding it all for the sake of my brain and just going by feel.
It took extensive changes in their care and keeping (guess what – horses that don’t feel like they’re starving are waaaay more happy to humor you!).
It took money spent (and wasted) on books and courses, and endless time, and so much humility and excitement and letting go…
It took good friends and teachers, partners and collaborators to bounce ideas off til they stuck. I can’t list everybody here but you know who you are.
It took amazing, patient, big-hearted, and adaptive horses.
And it really took Firefly, this little baby lady horse, to show me how shockingly unnecessary this all could have been if my horses and I had had a gentle, loving, knowledgeable, and conducive start together (and individually). It is taking, like, zero effort to be best friends with this foal. All I have to do is not be a total asshole, and scratch her ankles, and she can’t get enough of me. Magic.
OH, and don’t get me wrong, I don’t think this is a done deal. There is so, so much more I want to learn to share and communicate with my horses. There are so many ways in which I know I could do better, if I only knew how. But I am comfortable here, in this space we’ve finally come to. And I feel like we’re all on the same side, for once. And every day onward from here is interesting and fulfilling, and I think we might even be on to something pretty cool together!
So don’t go hug your horse today, unless they like it (Spoo and Fly love hugs, Molly would rather I f*** off and die) – but do start peeling away some layers, sweeping out an assumption or two, brushing off your innate ability to listen and love, and go have some fun, whatever that means to you and your horse buddies. No matter where you are on this wacky ride, I guarantee you can find at least one giant hole and one giant wow in where you’re at – so keep on learning, but don’t forget to look back now and then to see how far you’ve come!
And above all, remember the key word and keep your eye on the prize: it’s all about your unique, mutual relationship, which thrives when the Golden Rule is applied. You know – as in, do unto others… as-you-would-have-them-do-unto-you?? I leave you with that puzzler, it only took me a decade to decode for myself!