The trailer rolled up the driveway in the dark, tires crunching the loose gravel on the surface of the pothole pock-marked pavement. My hearted bumped around in my chest, as I willed myself to remain cool and calm, as if I took in horses sight unseen hauled from other states all the time.
I’d seen a few pictures. She was a chestnut thoroughbred. She’d been a race horse and then a broodmare for the last half of her life. At fifteen, she was well acquainted with a highly competitive lifestyle and with having babies, and so I figured there was a possibility she might need some help learning to relax.
I stepped into the trailer to unload her and mainly all I could think was, “wow, she’s tall!” Probably 17 hands tall. She sighed and walked down the ramp next to me without so much as a tail swish. “good sign,” I thought, “Or maybe she’s too tired to be anxious after more than 10 hours on the road.” I let her go in a large pasture next to a field of four or five horses to be her neighbors for the night. She waltzed off into the darkness and finally I sighed. I still needed help relaxing sometimes.
The barn where I lived was full, and so the plan was to keep the horse at a friend’s training barn until more fences and shelters were built at my place. In a remarkable twist of fate, my friend also had a fifteen year old chestnut mare… and the two had actually trained together at Pimlico race track as three-year-olds. By the next morning, she was happily grazing in the field with her old friend and some young race horses in training. I began building our relationship with some Freedom Based Training techniques, in order to let her know that I would be listening to her and spending time with her doing what she wanted in addition to asking her to do some things with me that I wanted. The larger goal would be to one day integrate her into my band of three at home to do Equine Guided Coaching. For that, she would need to be open to various people being around her, able to adjust to their various emotional states, responding to their choices interacting with and just being around her, and comfortable enough in her own skin and environment to be a horse offering a horse’s opinion – safely.
I spent the first month standing out in the field at various distances from her, walking around her, gauging where she was most and least comfortable having me. At first, she paid very little attention to me. She would notice me, pause, and return to what she was doing. The young fillies tended to be way more curious about me and they would come up to investigate and try to play this new game, reaching out to me with their soft noses, following me when they could find a flow, and jumping back when I turned suddenly to face them. My horse was more interested in grazing and staying in relatively close proximity to her friend. When I walked too close for her comfort, she would move away, and I would work to find the most comfortable distance and gradually she grew to accept and even enjoy me at close range, stroking or scratching her. There were times when I would lead her somewhere in a halter; sometimes just to take a walk around the farm, and sometimes to do necessary tasks like get her feet trimmed, which I would do where she had a clear view of the other horses she knew well. When I walked her out and away from her friend, however, she started to show her anxious side.
There was a lot of what I call “giraffe necking” – when a horse feels tense and goes on high alert and stretches her head high up on her neck, seemingly doubling her height – and for this horse, that made her REALLY tall. Once, early on, I was putting her in a paddock after the farrier had finished trimming her, and she was opposed to the idea of going anywhere but back in the field with her friend, so she reared up practically on top of me as I tried to get back through the gate.
I guessed this was where the stereotyping about chestnut mares came from. And I continued to hang out with her in the field. Sometimes doing a form of standing meditation. Sometimes exploring what it took to gain her attention. Sometimes asking her to move backward or one step to the side. And always rewarding her with the relief of going to the places I knew she was most comfortable having me, which were 8 – 10 feet off either side.
My friend told me that people were seeing my activities and asking her whether I knew anything about horses and was it okay that I was doing strange things in her field. I had to laugh, because I am sure that is just what this horse thought when I first started. And then there was the day, about a month in, that she showed me it was all making a difference.
I’d been working on inviting her to come to me when I came in the field with the halter, as opposed to me having to go and make her stop whatever she was doing in order to put the halter on, or bribing her with grain to come to me. I would make sure that wherever we went, I was taking her to do something that involved something easy or pleasant for her, not challenging her with potentially too much too soon, or just going through motions of routine tasks. In this way, I hoped to both build her trust in me and also build an affinity for the halter.
This particular day, she was standing in the run-in shed with her friend and a young filly who had become her protégé. The morning was on its way to becoming another scorching day, and certainly the attitude of everyone present was that the less movement and energy we had to muster, the better.
I stood for a few minutes outside of the run-in shed, the halter and lead rope draped over my shoulder. I noticed my horse lift her head when I arrived on the scene, and I could see an ear trained on me as I moved across in front of the shed, searching for the least muddy, manurey path to approach. I entered the shed and went to her shoulder. Then I stood and relaxed, joining their group as if I might plan to stand there all day with them. After a few minutes, I beckoned my horse to come with me out of the shed, and I took some careful steps back on the least mucky path out. I felt her immediately. She was with me. She was walking with me, just as certainly as if I’d put the halter on and had the lead rope in my hand. And we walked out into the shady corner of the pasture by the water trough where I paused and she paused to have a drink.
Those few steps together felt like we might as well have won a trophy competing together in a big event. Or, what I imagine that must feel like, anyway. It was exhilarating to know that she was interested, that she was trusting, that she was engaging freely with me. We were communicating and growing together, beginning again as both our worlds were transformed.