Anna Blake recently posted a piece on bringing horses home that deals with the all too often ignored aspect of just how much disruption we subject horses to. I have long been sensitive to how what we see as simple, and often necessary, changes in a horse’s life can actually be highly disruptive to what they value most – peace and security. But, as Anna rightly (and much more subtly) points out, this fact often escapes rather self-focused and well meaning humans. Reading her piece had me reminiscing about an incident from the past that educated a pair of such humans.
Months after moving to the barn he would occupy for many years, Ben proved too clever with the faucet near his stall, and the barn owner tired of mopping up the results. So, he was moved down to the end of the barn next to Joy. She was a bay Quarter Horse mare with the sturdy build of a horse clearly bred for ranch work. Her owner, at the time, was a young handsome cowboy who used her for team roping (and yes, the teenage me had a crush).
Joy’s ‘been there, done that’ stoicism did not prepare me for the relationship that developed between her and Ben. Even Ben had shown no interest in bonding with his neighbors in his previous location – but bond with Joy he certainly did. I would come out after dark, and find him laying against the fence in his paddock, with Joy hanging her head between the bars and over his back. During the day, they would stand side by side, sometimes nibbling each other on the muzzle. Even Joy’s owner noticed, and commented upon, this new found friendship.
I began to notice that whichever horse was taken out to work was seemingly unbothered by the separation, while the other would watch attentively for their friend’s return. But, there were no histrionics during these short separations. This continued, with everyone involved being blissfully happy with the arrangement, until three years later when Joy’s owner sold her to a newbie horse owning couple. He’d found love, and was giving up his horse habit. They would be using Joy for trail riding.
Initially this change of ownership meant no significant change in the arrangements. They were keeping Joy at the stable, so things went on as they had before. However, there was one aspect of the Ben and Joy relationship that I have not yet described that proved too disturbing to her new owners, and would lead to a traumatic disruption of the bliss.
At feeding time Ben and Joy looked less like best buddies, and more like the Bickering Bickersons. Ears pinned, snapping teeth, it was all show and lasted only as long as the hay was on its way – but it greatly disturbed Joy’s kindhearted owners. Against recommendations from the barn owners, Joy’s owners had her moved to the middle of the barn.
The next time I entered the barn, unaware of the change, I could hear the distressed calling back and forth between Ben and Joy. Anyone who has raised foals will recognize what it can be like when mother and foal are finally separated – such was the situation with Ben and Joy. This went on for several days. Fortunately for me, my bond with Ben was such that I saw no affect aside from the calling when he was in his stall. It turns out that the same could not be said for Joy.
Within a week of the change, I came out to find Joy back in her old stall. It turns out that she was so upset, her normally calm demeanor under saddle was affected. She had become fussy and unpleasant to ride. Her owners were also disturbed by all the calling. They talked to the barn owners about the behavior changes. Being new to horses, they did not make the connection to the change in her location. The barn owners, being far more experienced, explained to them the cause. Initially they were unwilling to accept that as the answer, but after several days of the calling and the handling challenges, they finally relented. Peace returned to the barn.
The next time I saw Joy’s owners, after the return to normal, they expressed surprise at just how dramatic the reaction had been. They were unaware that horses formed such strong bonds. They genuinely saw the feeding time behavior as Joy being unhappy, and only meant to give her a peaceful place to be. As with many actions humans take with horses, they had the best intentions. But horses don’t understand intentions – they understand the impact they feel. We cannot explain to them when something is in their best interest; nor are we necessarily equipped to always know what actually is in the horse’s best interest. In the case of Ben and Joy, there was only trauma, and no benefit to the separation.
Our lives with horses will always involve decisions that we have to make. Sometimes we do it hoping the impact will only be positive, but we cannot know how the horse may view it. Sometimes we know there will be some negative impact, but we may not have any options so we try to minimize it. Whatever the situation, we should always understand that any change will be significant (and potentially traumatizing) for the horse; and if the opportunity arises to reverse a bad change, as with Joy, we absolutely should.
Ben and Joy enjoyed their friendship for many years, until another owner change resulted in Joy moving away. I am sure that she was as upset as Ben – but with the clean cut, his upset did not last as long as when they were separated on site. I can only hope the same for Joy, and that her new life was a happy and long one.
Be good to your horses!