What the Nightmare Revealed

Everyone did what instinct dictated.

The beach was so peaceful. Deserted with not so much as a footprint when they arrived. People in the distance maybe but they felt alone. Just a bay mare and her rider standing in the water and their friend on the ground leading another horse. All was calm but in an instant, a dog attacked, grabbing onto the mare’s muzzle. Panic. The rider came off in the surf and chose to let go of her mare, hoping the mare would fend best that way, while she tried to catch the dog. Terror. The mare started to run away with the other horse, who was now loose, too. The dog still attacking the bay mare full-on while she was trying to escape, and the rider called to her. The mare stopped and faced her rider, 60 to 70 meters away at that stage. The mare stopped and the dog managed to grab her again on the chest.

Reader, take a breath. It’s going to be okay. The rider was able to catch the dog and tie it to the trailer. They rounded up the horses and found the dog’s owner, who was home with had no idea the dog had gotten out. The mare had some wounds that are being tended to. It could have been worse, but in that moment, it would’ve been hard to imagine how.

Afterward, the rider said, “I had a mare who trusted me enough to stop and turn towards me when I called to her to stop, while the dog was still attacking, allowing me to try and catch the dog. Unfortunately, I could not hold on to it. Whether I should have called her or just let her run I will never know. I felt very strongly yesterday that I broke her trust because I could not keep her safe. Unfortunately, this is just another part in our journey together. On the bright side, we still have each other and there is a lesson here somewhere.”

This is part of a recent experience posted in The Barn, being shared here with permission.  Other Barnies jumped up to support her. It’s one for all and all for one. But here is where I hijack the narrative to talk about learnable lessons because I am in awe. There were no failures. Didn’t everyone respond by instinct, high in their sympathetic nervous systems: Flight, fight, or freeze?

The dog was doing what his instinct told him to. The adrenaline was pumping. and he was all in. The more the horse spun and reacted, the more thrilling the chase. Water splashed, it was utter chaos, and he was hysterical, a family dog irresistibly thrown back to an ancestral life that his every cell suddenly remembered: Fight.

The rider had an “unplanned dismount,” sudden and frightening, into the water but came up to her feet remembering what she had learned. She thought fast and made tough decisions. She took the best actions she could, throwing herself to the defense of her good bay mare: Fight.

And some of you readers felt helpless, some wished you could look away. Some of you may have stopped reading, angry with me for writing about it. While reading the original post, I remembered seeing something similar happen to a pair of riders decades ago. I’m still haunted that I was unable to intervene. But here, now, you kept reading and perhaps your breath went shallow like mine did: Freeze.

The bay mare ran. It was her best escape and every muscle pushed. She was born to run, and she reacted quicker than the dog or the human. It’s her superpower. She knew this was how generations of wolves have killed generations of horses. Primal fear. She may be domesticated, but her instinct never will be. The dog was relentless, and the beach was open. She bolted away with the other horse: Flight.

Then she hears her name and stops. Against every instinct, she stops.

The narrative matters. I won’t turn this into a fairy tale because the real story is too important. It isn’t that I don’t feel sympathy. It was a harrowing experience for all of them, stressful to even read about.  I hope this mare heals well from this nightmare attack, but I refuse to feel sorry for her. I am too much in awe. Besides, horses are bored by our pity, it reads sour to their senses. I have met this mare; she left an indelible mark. She had a raw dignity within her stoic demeanor. She was always more than her story.

Of course, the mare had a history, it would be easy to rehash that sad tale all over again and feel sorry for her circumstances before she came to her rider. At what point do we let go of the old stories that hold us back? Are we ever too old to be bigger in our potential than the sum of the past? Let it go, she is no victim. Let her’s be a hero’s tale.

Is this a love story? If you tell it from our side, it’s always a love story. We act like our love for horses is a rare unexplainable affliction, when in truth, it’s the accepted rule. We aren’t remotely special to love horses and this bay mare’s rider is at the front of that line. I’ve seen her eyes looking at her mare. If love was all it took to heal horses, this mare would have no prehistory, I would be out of work, and we would all still be admiring the sky at the beach. No, this pair had been working hard to build something way more valuable to the mare. Confidence is equine gold. What this horse and rider managed was something that dwarfs our all-encompassing passion for horses.

The mare stopped because she trusted her rider. How many of us could pass the wolf test?

Dear Rider, can you control the universe? Never. Not for a sunny moment on a peaceful beach. But second-guessing is for railbirds. You did everything right, and even if you don’t believe it yet, act that way for your mare. Did you break her trust? Betray her because you could not keep her safe? That’s your big squishy heart speaking; a committed rider willing to blame herself for things beyond her control. Know that you were both perfect. It is not in the nature of a horse to wait for us to save them. If your mare holds a grudge, it will most likely be against dogs. You’ll both work on that, but your mare saw you fight him. Trust her intelligence.

An update: The rider is doctoring the mare’s body wounds but those on to her muzzle? The mare doesn’t want her halter. She isn’t betraying their relationship, it’s just real-time common sense. Her muzzle has always been the most sensitive spot on her body, she literally can’t see that area, and it hurts. Good bay mares always have an opinion. That’s normal. The rider is still hopelessly in love, not that it stops the mare from flinging her head all over to avoid the medication. They are a little bruised right now, but on this eventful day, it’s undeniable how far they have come, not for what went wrong but for all that was revealed.  And so, they persist.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm

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43 thoughts on “What the Nightmare Revealed”

  1. Very informative story – AND with a far better ending than it could possibly have been. If only we all received and deserved the amount of trust this mare gave her rider! It was deserved too – how many would be quick enough to grab the dog & take it out of the equation & be safe in the process? I’m sure this mare & her rider have come out of this with a better relationship even than before.

  2. I imagine this stirs up many feelings for all of us. Thank you for taking it on for your blog this week. I am so impressed with the mare over-coming instinct to listen to her human, altho’ I see that aspect of the experience haunts her to some degree now. As your title says, the nightmare experience revealed a deep connection.

    I am so relieved it all turned out relatively well in the end. (No one died is my criteria for relatively well.) The piece I like best in your blog here is the role of “instinct” in all this, for everyone. ..the horse, dog, and the human. Gee, and I gotta say how brave to catch a dog being aggressive and contain it !

  3. PS. And isn’t it a hard truth that no matter how much we might wish it otherwise, we cannot totally protect our beloved horses, children, or anyone else from traumatic experiences ? S

  4. Wow, does this bring up a lot for me. Several years ago, it was me on the deserted beach early in the morning, riding one and ponying another. I heard someone frantically shouting for their dog. I turned and saw a dog (yes, a Pit Bull) speeding like a bullet right at us. I turned the horses towards him hoping he would chicken out. Not so. The dog launched himself at my leg and when I kicked him off, he went for my horse’s belly, the one I was riding. A rodeo ensued. I came off and broke my wrist in the process. The horses were running down the beach in full flight with the dog close behind. The dog’s owner finally captured him and then took off as I was gathering up the horses. There were cuts and bruises and my wrist required surgery. In the aftermath of this event, my heart rate escalates and I tense up every time I’m riding and a dog approaches aggressively. Even though common self tells me the dog will chicken out the moment I turn towards it, I still feel the sudden burst of anxiety. While the anxiety becomes less and less over time, it’s still there and I try to explain it to myself and the poor horse to whom I transmit my fear. I can still feel the experience as thought it was yesterday.

    • Keep breathing, so sorry. For what it’s worth, you made a good choice… As someone haunted by my past, too, I breathe for all I’m worth. Thanks, Nancy.

    • Nancy,
      Yikes! Pit Bulls are my worst nightmare to meet on the trail, having had 3 experiences with 3 different dogs being attacked by them, completely unprovoked. (over my lifetime).
      In the situation you described, you did what I would have done -it usually works. Hmmm. Now I’m thinking hard about other options in such a scenario.
      Thank you for sharing tour story.

    • Thinking about what I wrote, I should add that, as a small animal veterinarian, there’s a whole lot to love about Pit Bulls. I think most veterinarians would agree that the vast majority are truly delightful to work with. The thing about Pit Bulls is that most are so courageous, they don’t feel the need to back down from much. A rider on top of a horse is a pretty daunting profile to 99% of dogs. The same is true for other predators as well- we don’t hear about people on top of horses being attacked by mountain lions or bears (at least I’ve not heard of this as well). Leave it to a Pit Bull to break the mold!

      • In my experience dogs (horses and even kids) are only as good as their owner. Its such a shame that the true courageous nature of a pitt bull gets picked up by wankers with egotistical short-comings and thus end up with a bad name. We had a pitt bull years and years ago….he was the utmost sweetie!! We had friends who had a little girl about 18 months old just learning to walk and he would walk beside her so she could place her hand on his back and balance herself. I have actually seen her with my own eyes go ass-over and grab one of his ears as she went down to try and stop herself (instinct and he was within reach)….he gritted his teeth in pain and lowered his head with her and waited patiently while she got herself together and let go. He just sat with her and gently waited!!!! The old black chook used to curl up in his basket with him at night – smart chook….. the dog would keep the foxes from getting the chook!!!!

    • Brings a similar experience back to me, only on a gravel road in Minnesota a couple miles from home. My little blonde QH mare and I were walking along enjoying a lovely Fall day and out from a yard came 2 Pit Bull crosses My 1st instinct was to turn and face them, but they rounded behind her so fast and spin as we could (she was not a reiner, but pretty handy) they stayed at her heals nipping. I gave her the go ahead and we just lit out of there. Returned to a walk in 50 yards or so, they had gone back to their yard. I’m sure they had gotten a little gravel spray as we left them, as we went by that house many times after and they never bothered us again.

    • Nancy, the dog didn’t attack because it was a pit bull; it attacked because it’s a dog. Most dogs haven’t had the good fortune to be socialized with livestock. My German Shepherd was 6 yrs old when horses entered our lives and it took quite some time to convince him that the horses were not a monster nor an enemy from whom I needed protection. That same dog now spends his time trying to teach horses to throw his ball for him. Someday, I just know one of them is going to do it!

  5. “It is not in the nature of a horse to wait for us to save them.” This is huge. Thanks, Anna.

    I pray this mare and her rider continue to heal.

  6. “Your mare saw you fight him”. Of corse you did , dear rider, that is how human love kicks in for those who also trust their instincts.
    Powerful piece Anna . I am haunted by “your mare saw you fight him”.

  7. The other comments voice my feelings exactly, with the exception of one thing that I want to thank YOU for; the fact that you did not immediately condemn the dog and the dog’s owner, even tho that might be one’s first ‘instinct’ while reading this. Thank you for that.

  8. Oh Anna! How often you bring me to tears with your wisdom and your lovely writing! You help me take (another) deep breath as I continue my journey with my wee war horse and my new Mustang who acts like she is just off the range!
    I was glad to hear the update on everyone, too. ???

  9. Quite a story-very brave mare. The fact that she would stop when she heard her rider call is a wonderful example of horse-human bond-something to not be taken lightly! I believe, like you, the mare will not ‘blame’ her rider-she will instead turn her fear, anger & aggression toward dogs & this fact will be something the rider must work diligently with the mare to overcome.

  10. I’ve been a vet for 50 years. I’ve never ceased to be amazed and humbled by the fact that day after day, as a vet, you are presented with animals sick or in pain, and often in an unfamiliar and scary place. How often you have to ask them to trust you, and how often they do – let you give that injection, wrap that injured leg, pull out that piece of bone wedged in the mouth. But what brought and still brings tears to my eyes is the memory of those who have trusted me while I’ve given that last lethal injection. It got worse as I got older. In the end, I would apologise to owners, to my vet assistant, because I knew I would be unsuccessfully fighting back tears and I had to get it right, had to get the needle in the right place the first time. I’m retired now, but I can’t not weep as I write, even now, just reminded of it. It’s just one of those things that you have to accept, doing your best and yet feeling that you’ve betrayed the trust of a creature that has trusted you. Well, it’s ok. You HAVE done your best, and maybe they sense more than you realize., and they’re prepared to accept your best, however poor you think that is. . That’ s what I tell myself.

    • “and they’re prepared to accept your best, however poor you think that is.” I believe that to my core. As a trainer, I think caring for injuries is about the best thing for connecting. Your comment proves it. Thank you, Phyllis.

    • Bless you for your work. Please know that for the owner slipping a halter on to your dear horse for whom theres is no hope and leading him to ‘the spot’, the betrayal feels utterly complete. You’re not alone in your pain.

    • Last May I had to have my beautiful mare put down. I had bought her from a bad place, knowing she was lame, and tried for 8 months with my vet’s help to get her sound, but in the end…there was nothing inside her hoof but pain. When, after the flood, she was once more in obvious pain, worse this time, she gave me That Look. The “I’ll try again, I’ll fight as long as you tell me to, but please…” And a day in the vet’s care didn’t help. The next morning I went over and she was sweet and gave me her face and breath and again…”can it be over, please?” So I led her slowly out into the sunlight (the weather had finally cleared), with a Stud Muffin every time she touched my hand for another, and she smelled the grass and clover and reached down…and couldn’t reach the grass without wincing. I handed her more Stud Muffins, at her height. It was a mercy. I knew it was a mercy. I am glad vets exist who can provide that mercy for horses in such pain, with no future but more of it. What the horse wants, I’m convinced, is for pain to end. They will let us hurt them to cure them (the one I have now had to have his upper lip sutured and then live with a very sore lip until it healed, which it has) but when they hurt, what they want–is no more pain. And when it’s gone on too long, and they’re so tired…ending the pain is not betrayal. Thank you for the mercy you’ve shared, and for your sorrow that it comes to that.

    • I think I will have to “hide in the loo”, because I actually felt guilty when I fell of my horse when he ran away from something that scared him.
      First time ever he did a ‘runner’. He also never lost a rider before and I felt that I topped off his fright by getting off during that ride..
      Your blogs keeps me sane ?

  11. Common sense tells us not to try and break up a dog fight, let alone grab a dog that’s attacking your horse! That’s the height of stupidity, instinct aside. Good grief, the woman could have died. As for me, I’d be wishing I had a gun to put that dog out of everyone’s misery. I hope the owner had to pay for all the medical AND Vet bills. Years ago, a woman in Florida – a top Endurance rider on a top Endurance horse – was doing a conditioning ride and stopped to cross a local, two-lane road. While waiting, a Pit Bull came out of nowhere and attacked the horse. Hell yes, the horse panicked and ran into the road where it got hit by a car, throwing the rider through the windshield. Bottom line, the horse died and the rider suffered multiple injuries and months of recuperation. Thankfully, the worthless animal was captured by Police and put down so it would never repeat the atrocity. I have NO sympathy for anything resembling a Pit Bull – they are a black mark on the canine world.

  12. Undeniably awesome. (not the attack of course). Such an awesome incredible team…. it shows how much work has been tendered carefully in their relationship AND you cant control the universe, you can only do your best in each moment of time. What a sensational mare. She’s certainly has MOJO is spades!!!! Dearest rider/owner – you did an incredible job under-fire. You were brave, resilient and got in there immediately to secure your mares safety. Good on you girl!!!! A very frightening situation for both of you. But certainly dont beat on yourself. You did well. Your mare – what an awesome girl too!!!! So brave and so trusting and so sensible – she is a true treasure.

  13. Loved this! The wolf test. I’m a professional dog trainer, and I’ve got a lot of tough clients. This made me think of something that I feel holds true for our relationship with anyone, animal or human. The emotional cup. What fills an individual’s emotional cup, and what depletes it? When our actions fill a cup, especially one that is depleted upon the beginning of our relationship, we begin to build another vital component, the trust account. And there will always be moments when we must make withdrawals from that account, in desperate acts of instinct to maintain safety for our beloved. Moments just like this one. But if we’ve done the work to fill the cup, we will pass the wolf test! And even though passing that test means depletion of the trust account in some way, we can always move forward and replenish. It’s a cycle, and balances out, unfortunately, unless you are very lucky. I loved this story, despite the fear. Thanks for sharing!

  14. Wow, catching an attacking dog is taking a huge chance. The rider is so lucky the dog didn’t turn on her instead! But that’s not the point of the story, is it!? This story is as much about trusting the journey, as it is about the trust that can exist between a horse and a human. It never ceases to amaze me.

    And your phrase “horses are bored by our pity, it reads sour to their senses” really struck a chord with me, too. There’s a world of difference between pity and compassion; compassion fosters connection.


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