I share my paddock with 4 other horses: two are Friesians (Wilby and Charlee), one is a Welsh pony (Bella), and the fourth is a Standardbred (Sunny). When it’s time to go inside for the night (and, of course, dinner!) Wilby gets to go first if he wants to. He’s the boss. Sometimes he chooses not to exercise this right, and lets me, Charlee, and on occasion even the pony, go ahead of him. Sometimes he hangs back like we’re allowed to go ahead of him, and then crowds up from behind which makes me, personally, extremely nervous. Especially if the human in charge of the lead shank takes a bit too long to attach it to my halter or to open the gate for me to go through. By the time we’re ready to go I’m usually dancing and twitchy, thinking I’d made bad decision. So why will I do it again the next time I get the chance? Probably the same reason humans watch horror movies. It’s deliciously scary.
But one horse who never comes in anything but last is Sunny. He’s just naturally a bottom-of-the-totem-poler. I can chase him away from the last bit of the yummiest hay just by flicking an ear. We don’t pick on him, though, and Bella, Charlee and I take turns hanging out and grazing with the little nipper. He’s a cute little guy, and I guess we all feel a little sorry for him. His nerves are weak, his lungs are suspect and his tendons need to be treated like fragile glass – booted for riding and wrapped when he’s inside. He’s afraid of men particularly, to the point that Lil’s two grown sons don’t even bother trying to catch him when they’re bringing us all in, but leave him for her to get. The one exception is Lil’s husband, Robert. He can always catch Sunny, even if it sometimes takes a while. It can take ANYONE a while some days. Robert laughs and says he “horse-whispers” Sunny into letting himself be caught.
Robert’s version of horse-whispering is usually to wait Sunny out. He’ll just chill out on the water trough with the lead rope, and wait for Sunny to decide he’s played hard-to-get long enough and that he is, after all, hungry. Then he’ll wander over toward Robert and stop 10 to 15 meters away, his nose pointing very slightly toward the gate. This means “ok you can come get me now and I won’t run away when you reach for the halter.” This process can take a while, though, and I’ve seen even Lil get spitting mad and threaten to leave Sunny out for the coyotes.
Other people’s idea of horse-whispering can be a lot more complicated, though. They usually show up with lots of special equipment like rope halters and magic wands or whatever they call them, fancy low-impact bridles and custom-made or pillowy treeless saddles. Their horses are barefoot (so am I, so there’s nothing wrong with that!) and their consciences are clear. They practice what they call “natural horsemanship,” which is all about being your horse’s friend and leader.
Lil took me to a clinic with a natural horsemanship guru once when I was 3, and of course the first thing the woman said was that I was looking (“desperately looking,” if I recall correctly), for a leader because I flipped out a little bit while Lil was forced to change my regular halter for one of those rope things in a strange arena full of people with camera flashbulbs going off (I tend to have that effect on people). And then the crazy woman smacked me with her “special rope” ($57 for a 20-foot length) when I crowded her, as I tend to do when freaked out. And while demonstrating the maneuver to Lil (who was stupid enough to ask, and even more stupid in agreeing to role-play the part of, well, moi). She smacked her right in the face. That’s when Lil said she’d had enough and took me back to the barn where I apologized for my three-year-old behaviour and Lil apologized for putting me in the hands of that crazywoman. Lil and I trust each other. We can handle pretty much anything together.
As to being “friends,” well, cool. I’d certainly prefer to have my human be my friend than my enemy, but let’s be serious here people – I’m a horse, and you’re not. I like hanging out with humans. I’m weird that way. But I don’t see myself moving into Lil’s house anytime soon. And while I may push the boundaries a little bit from time to time, I fully expect Lil to let me know before I’ve gone too far. I weigh 1200 pounds. If I were “playing” with an elephant, I’d want him to like me, sure, but I’d also like to know he sees me as his boss, not just his buddy.
Besides, where is there anything “natural” in the relationship you humans have with us horses? There’s nothing natural about carrying you guys around on our backs. It’s one of nature’s little jokes that she made us anatomically suited to the exercise (up to a point, anyway), and for millennia we as a species have decided to let you get away with it. “Natural?” Leave your gates open for a day and see if it’s natural for your horses to stay inside those paddocks – no matter how spacious and well-cared for they may be. And even though it’s smaller, a rope halter is no more natural than one made of leather or nylon or woven fairies’ wings and unicorn hair. I’ve never seen a halter of any description sprout spontaneously on any horse’s face.
We horses love that you humans try to understand us. We really do. It can’t be easy for a self-centered ego-driven tightly wound stressed out predator to try to understand a horse. Some of you “get it” more than others do, and some of those who get it are pretty good at sharing it with those who don’t. Please continue. But give me a break. Don’t think you’re treating me the way another horse would, or that I would expect you to. Leave the “horse whispering” to the one or two in a hundred thousand who have the gift, and don’t kid yourself that anything you do with me is “natural.”