The weather is turning, and our horses coats are growing. Last week my 6-year-old, Eddie, was clipped, his first time doing so in my owning him. He was perfect, the clip came out great, and the next day, I went to ride him. The second the saddle pad hit his back, he curled up and froze. He held his breath. His eyes went wide. He walked around the arena in hand for a bit, but discretion being the better part of valor, I stuck him on the lunge line. And he exploded, huge bucks, over and over and over. I’ve never seen anything like it. I struck a balance in my lunging between letting him let the energy out (honestly, I didn’t have a whole lot of say in the matter), and making transitions so he had to stay at least vaguely present and with me.
It was unbelievably naughty. And it was unbelievably out of character. Eddie is a kind, gentle-natured horse. He’s bright and engaging, with a soft eye. I’ve also learned in our 8 months together that he’s a little insecure, particularly about his back and his hind legs. So when I saw that look in his eye, saw him hump his back up underneath the saddle and walk like he’d been hobbled, it reminded me of a look I sometimes see in my human students’ eyes, when they’ve had a bad day at work, or they’ve had a bad night of sleep, or they’re going through a divorce, or they’re feeling the pressure of an upcoming show. Sometimes the barn is the best place for them, when they’re dealing with difficult moments, but sometimes they can’t check it at the door.
Our job as horsemen, above all others, is to care for the animal. But feeding and watering and stall cleaning and veterinary and farrier care aren’t the whole story. They aren’t bicycles, and they have feelings and emotions and bad days just like we do. And I know that if I’ve had days where I couldn’t leave my personal life at home, or where I was frustrated with something off the horse, and it’s affected my ride, then it is only reasonable that a horse could bring something from outside the arena to our time together as well.
There’s a bit of ancient Greek wisdom - “Temet Nosce” - which translates to “Know Thyself.” I know myself to know that there have been days where I could not ride well, in a way that was fair to my horse. The day after a death. The day after a client got angry over nothing and left in the middle of the night with a nasty note. The day after a breakup, or a fight with someone I loved. Or when a horse is being tricky, or dangerous, and for whatever reason I’m just not in the headspace to be patient or compassionate.
I’d posit that, here in the horse world, we must adopt our own phrase: Nosti Equum Tuum, or Know Thy Horse. Read his body language in the stall, on the crossties, as you put the tack on. Is that the normal look in his eye? Does he normally dance around, or is that unusual? Does he always grind his teeth? Does he always swish his tail when you tighten the girth? Some horses do, but time with each one as an individual lets you learn their habits and quirks.
And know what they’re used to. Eddie is an evolving creature, but his “big brothers,” my ten year old FEI horses Puck and Elvis, have been in my life for years, and have grown into themselves. Puck is always a bit of a wiggle worm on Tuesdays, the day after our day off. Elvis is rigid in the back and feels behind the leg no matter what I do. I know this about both of them, and it gives me peace, so I don’t spend my Tuesday rides (and then the 23 hours until my Wednesday rides) fretting about how untrained they become on Mondays. My four year old, Maddie, is a gem of a creature, but after a long wet week with limited turnout, she became a real cow for a few days. I knew I needed to proceed with caution, lunge her, and be sympathetic.
Of course it’s possible to anthropomorphize, to proceed with too much caution. The balky 9-year-old who’s been treated for Lyme and ulcers and gone through 12 saddles and 36 bits and the animal communicator and every book and DVD system on the planet might be suffering from PD: “parenting deficit,” a condition where the horse (or human, frankly) has made it to adulthood without ever having been told “no.”
And in that vein, I don’t care how bad of a day a horse is having - vicious, spontaneous behavior is not to be tolerated. But when I think about the day last week with Eddie and the launching, he gave me a BOATLOAD of warning. As explosive as he was on the lunge line, he made his needs abundantly clear. So while no, I would never have stayed on him if I’d been so stupid as to ignore him, he’d earned the privilege to let his feelings out.
As a steward of my horse, both physically and mentally, it’s my responsibility to know him, to be ready for his ups and downs, and to find a way to make those downs positive. It was my job to teach him that it was ok to feel what he felt, and to deal with it in a way that didn’t hurt anyone. There will be other days where Eddie will feel uncomfortable, whether it’s because of clipping, or a moment in the training where he has to dig in, or having to load onto a trailer in the dark and the rain, or whatever it could be, because no matter how hard we try, sometimes life brings us hardship. My job as his two-legged parent is not to make sure his life is free of pressure, but to teach him how to cope with it, and to feel good about doing so. My job is to teach him resilience, self confidence and trust. In how I teach him how to be comfortable in his own skin, I teach him to know myself, too, and to believe that I will not lead him into trouble.
All photos courtesy of Heather Richards and KTB Creative.