On any ordinary day of any year, we get so filled with emotion talking about a ghost horse that our voice strangles itself to a deep squeak, our eyes become rimmed in red, breath so shallow that our ribs crumple around our hearts. We have old photos, but we don’t need them. We remember our first pony and our first big horse; famous horses, horses in movies, our friend’s horses back in the day. Practically every horse we ever met because every time we see a horse here with us now, it brings the ghost herd along. That’s why we especially love the ones we can touch. The ones we can stand next to; the ones we can hug. We love them like dorky teenage girls desperately hoping, needing, an impossible fairy tale happy ending. We love them so hard.
Maybe we have a love-photo, our hands clutching his chin as we press our forehead to the horse’s forehead, our eyes closed in the bliss of connection… his eyes also closed, because he feels the exact same way. We need him to love us as we love him.
Is love an emotion horses feel, or do we just wish it was?
We don’t like to admit that our love is needy. It’s only that horses make us happy, that we like to be near them. We like to grab their halters and pull them close. We want to lean a shoulder into their neck, we want to feel their breath and smell their mane and we want, want, want.
Then some damn loudmouth party-pooper, (it might be me) starts learning and teaching about calming signals. Calming signals give us a window of understanding communication deeper than before. We can read pain easier, understand what it means to be a stoic horse better. Calming signals are an undeniable language, the messages a horse gives us that we are loud predators, that they are no threat to us and we can be quieter.
Saddest of all, calming signals are visible signs of anxiety that we often confuse for affection.
We love that snout to nose love-photo of the two of us but that same damn loudmouth party-pooper says that closed eyes can be a calming signal, him hiding inside himself, almost playing dead, as a way of mitigating the stress he feels when we intrude on his space. It’s the worst news, so we test it in a hundred ways.
Sure, there are some mares who let us know clearly that they don’t like us around their faces. There are horses better under saddle than on the ground, and it dawns slowly that when in the saddle, we are out of their space in some contrary way.
Finally, there is a moment that can’t be unseen. It’s when we begin to see that beautiful horse, so inquisitive and alert, so sensitive and intelligent, shrouds his eyes a little more each step closer we get. He looks away because we’re quick and he’s trying to avoid the halter. He drops his head low to the ground to stress-graze when we want to move on.
Even when we know it, we avoid admitting it. It chafes our ego. With every affirmation the horse gives us that a bit of distance is good, we hang on tighter. We twist every calming signal they give us, every request for time and space, into a sign of love because we wish it was true. If we have a horse with so much anxiety that he rubs and mauls us with his nose, constantly agitated, we try to frame his insecurity as proof that it’s him wanting to be close to us, even as his heart rate climbs.
Have I mentioned that I’m marginally sorry about what a loudmouth party-pooper I am? It’s just that I care about horses. It isn’t a crime to hug a horse but we need to listen more closely, beyond our needs, especially to the stoic ones. And by listen, I mean with our whole bodies.
At first, it’s just hard. We force ourselves to keep our hands quiet. Train ourselves to care less about what we get from them and more about what they need from us. We learn to release their anxiety rather than make it worse. We let them pick the path sometimes, by leading from behind, and support their autonomy and confidence rather than insecurity.
We find a way to stand as equals in a partnership that doesn’t need to brag, that has nothing to prove. It isn’t that your horse compulsively needs to be by our side, it’s that the distance between us only strengthens the connection.
And we begin to see calming signals that define a different horse, one more peaceful in the herd with softer eyes and a smoother muzzle. Fewer worry lines, nostrils easy and his poll relaxed. We work with smaller cues and the lighter we get, the more willing our partner chooses to be with us without coercion or obligation. Even nearly invisible anxiety melts away.
We let go of the idea that they need us or that we can save them by loving them. We let them live for themselves, without the burden of healing us or making us whole. We get stronger within ourselves so that they can be free.
We practice the least romantic ways to love horses.
We choose the best lifestyle for our horses, even if it’s the inconvenient one. We keep a herd because a good life for a horse requires more horses and fewer people. We learn to stop fussing and fidgeting and micromanaging, and just let them be horses. Who we fell in love with in the first place.
Finally, we stop commiserating and whining about their rescue history. They live in the present and are waiting for us to catch up. And for all the years we have been imperfect, with bad hands and impatient cues, we must forgive ourselves because our horses have already and carrying our stale guilt around inside us puts out a stink horses can do without.
Instead, feel gratitude for the strength it takes to love them at a distance so they can make a choice to be a partner, not because of ropes and whips and insecure learned helplessness, but with true liberty.
Love them, not for how they make us feel but for the freedom and confidence we share from letting go.