We don’t ask much from horses. It starts simply. On the day that we are thrilled to get the horse of our dreams, the one who we think it going to be the best horse ever, he gets taken from his family herd, kidnapped in a trailer, and taken to a strange place. The trip alone is enough to give him ulcers.
We love everything about him, except for the things inconvenient for us. Those are the things we’ll start to correct. He should be happy to leave the herd without separation anxiety, he should be totally under our control in any situation, and most of all, he should love us. It makes sense to us because we paid good money for him. He doesn’t know what money is.
Or maybe you’re altruistic. You get a rescue horse. Maybe he comes from a rescue or maybe you look at his old home and decide you’d be a better home and call it a rescue. Maybe you get him from a kill lot because your heart is in the right place, but you don’t know it’s a scam. It’s the same trailer abduction to him.
You want him to know he’s safe now, even as you re-tell his sad story to friends who come. Everyone feels sorry for him, and he feels everyone’s anxiety. You think he should show signs that his past has been erased because you hauled him somewhere, like a faith healing on a non-believer. Same ulcers from the trailer trip.
Then there’s probably a big vet bill right away. It’s for the undisclosed lameness or the chronic undiagnosed issue that caused him to be sent to rescue in the first place. Or it’s the injury he sustains in his new environment from another horse who you knew would just love him.
His new life that couldn’t be more different than what’s natural for a horse. Even a domesticated one. It sounds crazy but the anxiety you feel financially impacts him on top of the rest of it.
Change is hard, but for all the challenge it is for you, it’s still harder for a horse.
When I moved to my farm with my horses, so we could all live together happily ever after, you would have thought I had sent them to hell. They were not living my dream. They went lame and lost weight pacing.
The good news is that humans are evolving as a species. Most of us understand that horses have consciousness; they know they are alive, they feel emotions.
For all our enthusiasm for training our horses, for all our jokes about horses training us, how many cues from our horses do we misunderstand? Especially the ones that don’t fit our narrative; our story of who we want them to be.
Maybe the new mare is being mare-ish. She’s pinning her ears in a sour way, she is aggressive at feeding time. She doesn’t like being hugged.
Maybe the new gelding is really friendly, maybe he’s hugging you with his neck and kissing you with his lips. You decide that he really likes you because it’s flattering.
Maybe it seems the new horse is pouting. He seems quiet and just fine. You climb on for a ride and he barely moves or he is head-high, scurrying around short-strided and frightened. Just not who he was when you wrote the check.
And the thought crosses your mind that your new horse was drugged when you looked at him. Maybe you were cheated. Or maybe your rescue isn’t as grateful as you thought he would be.
We think we can move horses around like furniture. Like they understand and agree to participate in our fantasy.
It’s so important to remember that no matter what plans we have, horses have a design by nature. They are herd animals, so they will mourn their loss and it will take time to settle into the new herd. It will take as much time as it takes.
From my vantage point as a trainer, I think it takes a year for most horses to settle into a new home. A year for normal to reveal itself. And we aren’t a species known for our patience.
Sometimes horses act like it’s no big deal. They are stoic horses and that’s their approach to everything. We love them, they’re Quarter horses or draft crosses or older horses.
It’s smart business to pretend to be stoic. It’s the lame horse that predators take when looking for an easy kill but drawing attention of any kind is seen as a sign of weakness in the herd. A smart horse plays it cool, but that might not be dependable.
Humans are likely to be romantic about bringing horses home. We say the horse picked us or there was just a moment when we knew. It’s who we are, also designed by nature, and our joy is nearly deafening to an animal who senses are as keen as a horse’s.
It’s spring and there are lots of new partnerships. Some seasoned riders are starting young horses and some horse-crazy girls of a certain age are getting their first horse, hopefully, a seasoned horse with some tolerance for giddiness.
All the new horse behaviors mentioned in this article are calming signals; communication from horses to humans. You’ll figure out the fine print as time goes on.
For right now, start here: They are telling us they have anxiety. That they are no threat to us and we don’t need to be so aggressive. They hope we will slow down and breathe. That we will lick and chew, and stretch our necks. That we will hold our noise to a dull roar and let them settle in.
When they look away or have sour ears or eyes that are just way too quiet and turned inward, it isn’t disrespect from them. It’s just them asking for a little respect from us, a little empathy for their feelings. Asking us for a minute to get ready. Take the cue.
The shared change of life that is our dream coming true, is going to start as a nightmare for a horse. It’s good to remember that partnerships need trust, and trust is still the most valuable commodity. It can’t be bought along with a saddle and bridle.
Trust must be earned, one breath at a time, and celebrated in hindsight.