Over the recent Thanksgiving holiday, I spent some time catching up on a ton of fellow blogger’s posts. I am now the new owner of an iPad, and with shorter, colder days, curling up on the couch to catch up on other’s thoughts and activities is a welcome pasttime. One blog I follow is called “Green to 100” and it chronicles a newish rider on the quest to complete a 100 mile endurance ride. As a rookie to the sport of distance riding myself, I find I can often relate to her stories. But another theme which is present throughout her blogs is that of relationship, specifically with her horse. She seeks to be a leader that her horse wants to follow, rather than to dictate to her horse about what is going to happen. Approaching her relationship with her horse in this manner means that certain things take longer. But it is clear that the reward of arriving where she wants to go, united as a team with her horse, is more important than getting there fast. Quality is more important than quantity.
Reading a whole series of her blogs in a row gave me the opportunity to reflect on the nature of the horse/human relationship on a number of levels, but especially in regards to the bond I share with each of my own horses.
In preparation for the winter season, Annapony has relocated to the university, which has an indoor, so that she can remain in consistent work. I have big goals for her next season, which will require us to use the winter to train and to build strength and suppleness. She is happy enough there, and well cared for. But I was really quite reluctant to bring her back, and kept delaying her departure from Cold Moon Farm. It wasn’t hard for me to realize that I simply wanted her to be at home with me and with my other horses. I genuinely enjoy being the main caretaker for my horses. I know them so intimately that it is easy to notice when something is off. By bringing Anna to another facility and putting her day to day care in someone else’s hands, it feels almost like a wedge is driven into our relationship. That isn’t entirely true but I still resent the intrusion.
Anna is a calm horse, most of the time. She seems to enjoy human attention (especially if there is food involved) but also likes other horses. Her rank in the herd is towards the top but her style of leadership seems to be more threat than attack. Anna is pretty tolerant; nervous horses on trail have run right into her hindquarters and she has never so much as flicked an ear. That being said, I find the best approach with Anna when tackling a new skill or question is to ask, then wait a moment. If I am too hasty, and try to force her…she resists, sometimes with great vigor. If I give her a chance to look and understand, then she usually will comply.
The other night, I took Anna for a hack onto the cross country course right as the sun was setting. We have already had some snow here in New Hampshire, with some mild melting, leaving the ground a hodge podge of bare spots mixed with snow covered rocks, footprints and other hard to discern anomalies. The air was cooling off and a fairly steady breeze had picked up. Overall, conditions were not ideal for a relaxed hack, but I was determined to get out of the ring after several days of solid arena work. In the woods, the light was dim and features unclear, yet Anna remained mostly calm and confident. We completed a meandering loop around the course and returned to the main facility along the edge of the reservoir, past the observatory and down a trail which was now nearly completely obscured in the fading light of day. When there is no artificial light, it is pretty amazing how much you can still see, once your eyes adjust. A Canada goose broke the stillness with a series of loud honks, but even this didn’t cause Anna to tense or become unsettled. It was so calming and soothing to be riding in the near darkness, and to have nearly complete trust that my horse would keep me safe.
While Anna is back at school, Lee and Marquesa have remained behind at Cold Moon Farm, now living side by side instead of sharing a paddock. Lee is so submissive to Marquesa that it can make feeding complicated, so having them separated makes management much easier.
I wasn’t entirely sure how the transition was going to go, and overall, it was far less eventful than it was bringing everyone home this spring.
Lee and I have had a long history together—twelve years, to be exact. I think she likes me as well as she likes any human, but she has never been a cuddly horse; she isn’t going to nicker to you (unless you are carrying her grain), and during her long residence at UNH she was known to intimidate many an inexperienced crew member with her grumpy expressions. Lee is aloof. But she is also an absolute bottom dweller on the equine hierarchy, and I think a lot of her behavior is only posturing to try to convince you to just go away and leave her be. Lee isn’t going to come over to you in the field; but she is unlikely to run away from you, either. If you so much as raise your voice at her, she will recoil in horror. Lee is insecure.
When Lee and I moved to Cold Moon Farm last September, she spent nine months with no other companion save me and the goats which live next door. During that time, she really impressed me with her steadiness and composure. This year, Lee overwhelmed me with her grit and attitude on the GMHA three day 100 mile ride. But if I think back, there are SO many occasions on which Lee has stepped up to a challenge, and most of the time I think our relationship with each other has been one of mutual respect.
One of the best examples of this happened two winters ago, during Lee’s last season at UNH. I had taken to including at least one day of longeing per week into her routine, often incorporating work over cavaletti, just to break things up and give her a new mental challenge. At the end of a session, I usually hopped on bareback to cool her out. One night, we were alone in the indoor working on the longe. Each session followed a similar pattern, and Lee started to head out in the new direction without much prompting from me. I was struck by an inspiration, and so instead of stopping her, I just unclipped her longe line. For the next ten minutes or so, I longed Lee at the walk, trot and canter, all without the aid of a longe line. In the indoor. She could have gone anywhere in the ring she wanted, but instead she chose to stay with me and follow my direction on a twenty meter circle. It was pretty amazing.
Our newest horse, Marquesa, is different from either Anna or Lee. For eighteen years, she has been a horse which was used in lessons that I and others taught at UNH. I relied on her to give confidence to new cross country riders, to assist the timid jumpers, and to teach experienced riders that they still had a thing or two to learn about how ride on the flat. She certainly respected me as the authority figure in the ring, but like many school horses I think she had become somewhat guarded about who she chose to really interact with.
Marquesa is a dominant horse. She has a highly developed sense of fairness, meaning if you try to use force to correct her, she just stubbornly refuses to comply. She can be pushy, and I think being used too many times for “equine facilitated learning sessions” has made her fairly intolerant of humans trying to use their body language to coerce her into doing their will. However, she appreciates clear direction and boundaries, and when you treat her with kindness and fairness, she is quite sweet. When she starts to get pushy, if you can lower your energy instead of getting upset, and then explain what you want her to do, she will usually be willing to go along with you. Now that she is on her own side of the fence line, I find that she is more willing to interact with me directly. Before, she was mostly concerned with continuing to exert her dominance over Lee. Her relationship with the other horse was most important; I was just in the way.
Marquesa is still figuring out her own way in terms of post lesson horse life. She still has several different riders, but not more than three at a time, and has been doing a mix of ring work and trail riding. This fall, my friend Linsey took Marquesa out for a ride with me and Lee. There are several stream crossings out on the trails, which the horses are used to. After a recent period of heavy rain, though, one of the crossings was unexpectedly quite a bit deeper than usual. The water came right up to Marquesa’s belly, and drenched her rider’s feet. Marquesa froze for a moment, perhaps shocked by the sudden depth of water, but then she just kept right on going. To get home, we had to make the same crossing going the other way, and I wasn’t sure if she would be willing to do it again. I needn’t have worried. She plunged right in and stormed across, as if to say, “I got this”. Not too shabby for a horse who has lived in one place for eighteen years and has mostly worked in the ring. I think perhaps that she is starting to sort out that life here is okay.
Having two horses at home is hard in terms of relationship. Despite centuries of domestication, horses are hard wired to want to be with other horses. Solo horses feel vulnerable and show their distress through an array of behaviors. Since Anna’s departure for the winter, I have continued taking Lee out for solo rides, and going for duo rides whenever someone else is available to ride Marquesa. I haven’t quite gotten brave enough to pony one off the other just yet.
This puts all of our relationships to a real test. I can tell that Lee feels a little torn about who she should be listening to—me or Marquesa. Marquesa screams at the top of her lungs when I take Lee away; she actually starts when I am just grooming Lee, something I do in the paddock to minimize the length of the separation. On the one hand, I want to be able to work with each horse independently. On the other, I respect the genetics which have kept horses as a species alive for generations. Horsemen must work with these instincts, not against them. For her part, Lee usually walks out quietly and almost never answers Marquesa’s calls. But as soon as we turn for home, Lee starts to bounce and jig. Once Marquesa is in sight, she settles down. It is like she is trying really hard to be good, but can’t quite pull it off all the time.
Listening to Marquesa scream and dealing with Lee’s jigging can try my patience. But we are in the winding down time of the season. Nature in New England prescribes a period of rest or hibernation for most species, a time when aquifers refill, deciduous trees go dormant, and soils take a break from producing. The equine community similarly slows down, with fewer activities, reduced travel and less intense work outs. There is nothing to get ready for and nowhere to go. It is the perfect time to focus on relationship; to reconnect with what makes each horse unique and to enjoy the feeling of mutual respect which can be developed by responding to each horse as an individual.