Some horses remind you to begin at the beginning.
You know nothing about them and they cannot tell you in words. Nor do they want to open their hearts to you. You don’t know what field they were in yesterday, if it even was a field, or whether they were cattle prodded onto the truck, or cold cocked by a handler, tripped, thrown, slammed…you don’t know. You don’t know what is behind that watchful eye, that did not choose to be ‘owned’. So you have to take a big step back and go slow.
One of our newest mares, Clover, has reminded me of this. Clover walked onto the auction floor a few weeks ago, with her handsome colt at her side, and literally took my breath away. Clover is a dark bay mare of great beauty, like a morgan, as is her son, trotting warily beside her. They were tagged separately, and he would be ‘weaned’ there on the auction floor, with no halter training and no friend to help. I was unprepared to buy her, and as I panicked, she sold to a kill buyer for less then $200. Bidding began on her son, and another kill buyer was the high for just $10, until I bid. As they were dragging them apart, we won the colts life, for $20.
We then made a quick trip to the back and asked the kill buyer to please sell us the mare, and for a small profit he was happy to oblige. They don’t always, so I was grateful. There is no feeling in the world like I felt that night, finding the mare already sorted back with the ‘slaughter horses’, and calling out to her child, tied off with the ‘private sales’, and untying her and walking her out and reuniting the two. No feeling at all. How basic is it for a mother to want to protect her child? While I know that many horse people would have said that the colt was ‘old enough’ and yes, he would have lived, assuming we could have safely trailered him; but, why? Most horse people that I know would also prefer to wean a baby in a way that is safe and humane, introducing the colt to handling and to friends, both human and equine. I believe that a basic line is crossed when people forget that animals have feelings too.
But that is the pre-story really, because now the mare Clover and her son, Cooper, are safely here, in their own field. Cooper is responding beautifully to handling, with the natural curiousity of youth and the support of mom. We hope that he will be gelded this week, to further enable him to move beyond Mom in a way that is safe and healthy.
Clover is the real challenge. She is between 7-14 years old, but since I cannot look at her teeth I cannot tell. She has been calling for lost family, horse family, and is sad and wary. She feels alone. She has explained that she has been ‘handled’ by people, and it has not all been pleasant. She moves in a protective way, shouldering in to claim space and authority, and to protect her neck from pulling. She knows how to spin and kick out, not to connect, but to warn. She knows how to rear up to get release; again not striking out to hurt, but up, to escape. Shall I detail how I know each of these things, or can you imagine it? I think you can! And it is scary when a horse strikes out, and clearly there were smaller signals before those actions, that I missed. I need to pay closer attention. She is saying ‘no’. OK, got it.
But ‘no’ won’t really work for even basic, safe handling at Rosemary Farm. The goal is to find ‘yes’, to establish clear leadership, based on trust. This mare is going to be tricky for me. We believe that she is in foal again, but have not been able to safely check (see above, rearing and kicking). We believe that she foundered, from the appearance of her hooves, and likely around the time of the birth of Cooper. This could have been caused by any number of things but cannot be addressed if she doesn’t trust enough to be touched. But trust, by it’s very definition, cannot be forced.
So we begin at the beginning. I am spending time with Clover. I can now brush her at liberty, and pet her gently while she eats grain or hay. If she spins to move me I chase her off. If she faces me she is allowed in. It’s a balance of trying to not put pressure on her, but not let her put pressure on me, either. As we get to know each other, I hope that she will begin to trust my behaviour, and that I can begin to trust hers. She has such intelligence behind those eyes, and her expectations of me as a human are pretty low. I don’t know if she thinks that I have intelligence!
So we are going to get to know each other. From the beginning.