I was forty-nine years old with gray hair, calloused banged-up fingers, and chronic lameness in my left foot. He was two months old, brave, sensitive, and wildly athletic. He cantered at liberty throwing flying changes for the fun of it. I loved dressage, especially riding changes that skipped with energy and lightness. We were the perfect match.
It would be months before he was old enough to come home, so we had time to get to know each other. I took an afternoon every week to drive up to visit and he began to recognize me. The breeder did a slow, sweet weaning process, with short separations at first, then for the last few weeks, the colt had been out of sight of the mare and playing with others. No pleading calls, no pacing the fence line. During visits, I picked up the colt’s hooves to clean and he tugged my shoelaces loose. We played leading games, but mostly I stood by his shoulder and dreamed. His name was Donatello, but I knew that wouldn’t stick.
I’d been on my farm for three years by then. I moved there with two mature, advanced riding horses, two cattle dogs, and a couple of cats. Right away I got lonely, so I made the rational decision to get a couple of pregnant llamas, two pairs of goat twins, and a donkey who told me his name was Ernest. It isn’t like they all arrived on the same day. Besides, I didn’t move to the farm to read more.
I’d been pretending to be Jane Goodall. I wouldn’t admit it to her face or anything, but it’s how women like me play Superhero. No cape or tights, but we can be stealthy and have a special kind of vision that picks up nuance, remembers details, and translates behaviors into words. I believed I had discovered a new language in the remote wilderness just east of Colorado Springs. Maybe I spent too much time alone, but it seemed all the animals spoke it but me. Okay, to tell the truth, it was similar to the dog’s language but the horses were speaking it differently. By speaking, I mean using body language. By discovered, I mean it was always there but it was so quiet for so long that eventually, I heard it plain as day. By heard it, I mean I saw it. So, I gave up talking to make the learning more intensive, like a kind of silent Berlitz course. It worked.
My horses, who I’d started as youngsters and thought I knew every ounce of, started telling (showing) me things. It was as if they’d been waiting for me, keeping faith that I might come around. For my part, they didn’t have problems and I wasn’t looking for solutions. Learning to ride up the dressage levels meant that I was quiet and had subtle cues. I’d changed for them and been glad to do it, but now that achievement demanded even more, the cues went even more nuanced and somehow they were getting even steadier and more confident. Not that there was anyone around to see us.
It was 2003. I wouldn’t start writing this training blog for seven more years. The language hadn’t been named yet (by someone else). I wouldn’t write about it for ten years. And I was bringing a new horse home!
Finally, the day came. I had everything ready, a small pen next to the big one, with fresh water and hay. I hooked up the trailer and loaded Dodger, who loved road trips, to come along as company for the colt on the way home. We got to the breeder’s farm in good time, it was a bright May morning, and I haltered the colt and led him to a stock trailer. Mine is a four-horse, that I use like two stalls so horses could move about. Dodger stood quietly in the front as I coaxed the colt. He looked back and then looked at Dodger. I clucked and after a few moments, he climbed in probably wanting to be with Dodger more than understanding what I asked. It was a smooth, even peaceful trip home, and soon we were pulling into our farm. The ride couldn’t have gone better.
The colt unloaded uneventfully and walked with me to his pen. His new barn family all came to meet him. No one nipped or spit, there was lots of sniffing and eye-blinking and the colt was curious. It was all a success. In an hour, some friends came to meet him. He’d eaten by then and he charmed everyone. In the afternoon, I put Ernest in with him and another visitor came. By then he’d pooped and drank. As we stood close praising him, he laid down right between us. It had been a very big day for this little horse, but we’d had no injuries or frantic drama.
I knew it was all going to be perfect. I threw hay for dinner and he pinned his ears at me.
When I went into the house, I called the breeder to let her know we were home safe and all the important “firsts” had been completed. She thanked me. I said she hadn’t told me he was food aggressive. She said he never had been. I believed her and didn’t think much of it at the time. I’ve replayed this conversation in my head hundreds of times since. I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
I named my Iberian Sport Horse Nube, which rhymes with eBay, and is the Spanish word for cloud. Our first task was to tidy up the dinner conversation. No whip, no threats, I was kind and subtle, I asked him to stand while I brought the hay in. I praised him for learning so quickly, and he seemed to want to do the right thing. He was light and sensitive. A half-sibling of his was on the Olympic development team and this young horse was in my barn. It was a miracle under the prairie moon. I exhaled, he exhaled, and all was well in the world.
We train what we think we train and then the horse learns what makes sense to him. That was when I taught Nube to hide his pain from me. Worst of all, I thought I was paying attention.
Nube didn’t have Olympic aspirations. He had been kidnapped, stolen from his family, put in a noisy steel box, and taken to another world. The ground smelled different, the hay tasted different, and the horses were different. It was the worst day ever and he was scared. He was little and alone. The geldings licked and chewed for him. Their lips vibrated as they blew out long breaths to remind him to soothe himself. The llamas cushed in a line along the fence, chewing cud they barfed up to sociably chew again, moving their jaws in rhythm. The donkey stood close to the colt’s side like an oracle of wisdom. Living with humans is always a challenge, the donkey exhaled with half-closed eyes and a cocked hip. No, the human didn’t hear him and then told him to not say it again. The donkey rubbed his muzzle on his knee to let the colt know it would be okay.
It might have been the Grandfather Horse who said, with quivering whiskers and soft lateral ears, to give it time. He believed that some humans had souls and might even be capable of communicating.
And because the colt had no choice, he swallowed his feelings, and like bitter rocks, they splashed in his raw stomach.
Research finds that 98% of foals develop ulcers within two weeks of weaning. Read How We Met
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Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward
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31 thoughts on “Nube: When He Came Home”
You left me in tears and reminded me to read more attentively. Thank you.
Thank you, Caroline. It changes us.
Thanks, my friend.
You highlight what to me is one of the most painful challenges for a horse lover: to accept the ways our ignorance led us to fail to help, if not to actually harm, our horses. Forgiveness seems asking too much; acceptance is the best I can do. Thank you for sharing these difficult feelings.
Forgiveness is hollow without change. There is one thing I can do to pay it back. I can teach by example and write about it. Thanks Susan. I appreciate your words.
This is beautiful and heartbreaking. I don’t have any contact with horses any more but I regret that the contact I had as a child and adult wasn’t what I would want it to be now.
We all, each of us no matter if we are pros or amateurs must constantly grow to meet our horses. Of course, we’ve failed them at times but that’s all the more reason… Thanks Claire. No regrets for doing your best at the time.
I always want more please.what a great perspective. Being able to look back and see what you still had to learn and have the words to to describe it all. A bit like sitting in a ten year time capsule with the advantage of your voice and the equines wisdom.
Oh thank you, Kim. I want to write this out with advance hindsight.
Nobody would wish a horse the painful ulcer journey that Nube had. Still, many of us, especially our horses, are grateful you shared that hard-earned knowledge. I know Bella owed a debt to Nube.
Thanks, Peggy. Most of my clients owe him a debt and no one more than me. Bless this beautiful boy.
I am more touched than I have words for. Your expression of our human lack of awareness when we believe we are wise makes my heart break. I know it’s true. Sob.
We did everything right, that’s the point. But this was twenty years ago and we’ve learned so much. Thank you, Claudia.
Thank you for your sharp memory and honesty. This more than any other post of yours leaves me with so many questions, especially regarding my own little herd, mostly donkeys. There seem to be such a wide gap between our genuine efforts at seeing/ understanding and attempts to engage but providing space and language for relaxation, and even relief. Is the act of providing calming signals training to hide anxiety? Am I misreading that? Then there are the questions about my reading something into everything. I wish there was more research on signs of ulcers, but then donkeys are very unlikely to be even considered. And they deem to define stoic.
Calming signals are all about NOT hiding anxiety, and this was twenty years ago. I know so much from this horse. Remember that behavior is communication and maybe take my course at some point. Donkeys are challenging but they are also wonderful communicators… we just have to get better to hear them, as Edgar Rice Burro tells me.
So sorry, Anna, for not expressing that better. I am always looking for behaviors, but just so unsure. Of course I can’t expect to be at your level of understanding but I guess I just feel stuck at where you were 20 years ago, even tough I’m not sure where that was. I think I understand but then you I’m so unsure. Learning from observing behavior is difficult without an in person trainer, at least for someone without your gift for it. Your writing very much helps nudge me in the right direction. I may come back into the membership at some point. Thank you again
Nice, this article is why I’ve golloyou for a long time Anna. Thanks
Thanks, Elizabeth. I confess, I’m proud of this essay.
Excellent essay ! So well-written in your trademark style of wit and humor. The bonus for me is that I got to learn a little more about Nube’s life with you.
I guess the premise is that weaning and moving, no matter how kind & sensitive the humans are to the process, is likely to be sufficiently stressful to create ulcers ?
BTW, Tango pins his ears at mealtime.
Reasearch says 98% get ulcers, even when we do the very best. Vets say they no longer think about healing ulcers so much as managing them. This happened 20 years ago and we do better now. I know you do… Thanks, Sarah.
Thank you, Anna. We don’t know what we don’t know, it is said. And I don’t know yet how this journey ultimately ends with Nube, but you have prodded me to explore further for the two “newbies” I have left to care for.
Thanks Lynell. We can always do better, I think. How did the journey end? Like every horse journey. I love him forever.
Love this – “We train what we think we train and then the horse learns what makes sense to him.”
Great essay. You are an excellent writer.
Thanks for your kind words, Rhonda. Because you are in training courses, I will say this. I try to write with the assumption of intelligent readers, and I do the same with horses.
I’m sure all of us have regrets over what we did or didnt do more than 20 (?) years ago. This beautiful boy was able to teach you so much & bring you to where you are today. Telling HIS story brings many others to this place now. Not to tell HIS story would be so unfair to him.
Shed some tears over this plus MY regrets!
Oh Maggie. Thank you so much. That is my plan, to pay it forward for all he gave me.
If my brain had been functioning when I wrote that I would have thought of the “pay it forward”. But you got my drift!
It’s a kinder way of saying I’m a hand puppet for horses. Which I am.
I have long been aware that I am fortunate to possess the skill of reading people accurately (for the most part).
However, I appear to be a painfully slow learner when it comes to “reading horses”. I prepare myself to listen, observe, wait, and breathe; I then choose the wrong response on a frustratingly frequent basis. I can’t seem to shake my predatory genetics because I still have an “agenda” to work on as I try to listen, observe, wait, and breathe. I feel guilty. My vocation and avocation in life is to support, understand, and to fix if necessary, but if I don’t understand what is being said, it’s hard to choose the most beneficial next step.
Sorry Anna, I’m not trying to be a sad sac, I’m just frustrated by my ignorance.
Consider seeing your horses as clients at work maybe?? I do hear your frustration and I respect that. But I also know a bit about your horses and especially one of them is not capable of “normal” behavior. If only we could show ourselves the patience you’ve shown that horse. Thanks for your vulnerability and honesty, Laurie. None of us is perfect, just like our horses. Flounder on is my plan.