Thoughts on ‘Heart’ Horses

If you were a horse crazy kid, as I was (and remain in my heart) you likely read many of the same books I did while growing up. Most of us have fallen in love with some story of that special bond between a horse and human. We have fantasized about having that gallop down the beach, as in The Black Stallion, creating a bond no other human will have with that special horse. Life with horses tends not to fit so easily into those childhood fantasies, but if you are very lucky in a lifetime of horses there will be the one or two special ones who rise above the rest in your heart. I have not known a horseman who does not refer to at least one horse who has a special place in their heart. We often hear people refer to these as “heart horses”. What really makes a heart horse? And is it a healthy perspective to have with regard to our equine companions? Here are one horseman’s thoughts.

I was inspired to write this piece by a rant I recently read. The author was taking issue with anyone referring to any horse as their “heart horse”. The implication was that by having a “heart horse” you are somehow shorting every other horse you may interact with. She chastised that every horse you interact with deserves all the best you can give. In this post she seemed to be falling into the age old “you can’t have favorites” mindset. I’ve had the pleasure or working with well over 100 horses in my life, so far. With rare exception (I can think of only one) I felt affection for all of them. Every one of them got the best that I could offer, for whatever time they were in my life. Yet there is no doubt that some rose to levels in my heart that others could not reach.

My first fantasy books were the Billy and Blaze series. I dreamed of having adventures with my very own Blaze.

For those, like that author, who take issue with this idea I ask: do you feel the exact same way about all of your friends? Is every single person in your life just as special to you? If you are able to be honest, the answer has to be “no”. Yet, I hope, you are kind to those you consider friends and will help when and where you can. You can care about many other beings while still holding those who are truly special to you closer to your heart. We (again, I hope) love our significant others and our children more than the friend we meet for wine and a movie every Saturday. Yet we can also love that friend.

But is it ‘healthy’ to have that sort of bond with a horse? There are definitely those schools of thought that having deep affection for a horse makes for an unhealthy relationship. Top of those are any schools that still believe in the dominance (aka “Alpha Mare”) theory. For those believers, trying to be friends with your horse is dangerous – and having a romantic idea about some special bond just makes you a fool. Some will be downright derogatory to their listeners over this topic. I do not agree with the theory, and definitely dislike any approach that belittles people – but experience has shown that there is a grain of truth to the sentiment.

Ben was my Blaze – a horse of a lifetime. One of the dominance crowd once said he would kill me some day. Far from it – he literally saved my life more than once.

I once worked with a mare who had been rescued by a woman with just such a fantasy about a storybook bond. She desperately wanted the mare to be her best friend and plied her with carrots and sweet talk. By the time I was approached about working with the mare she’d become known as the grump of the barn. Her ears were always back and her expression glum. Every day, when I was scheduled to work her, the owner would show up with a two pound bag of carrots that would be gone by the time she left. Her presence made the mare grouchy, and she would typically move away from the woman when approached.

Try as I might, I could not convince the woman that her approach was the opposite of what would make the mare comfortable. Her feather light touch seemed to annoy the mare, and her posture most resembled that of someone trying to sneak up on a chicken before trying to grab it – soft step, slightly crouchy, and cooing as she’d go. I never saw the mare look favorably upon the woman (only upon the carrots), but to the day the mare died the woman insisted that she was her best friend. During the time I worked with the mare she became chipper, always greeting me with a whinny and seemed to enjoy the activities we did together. I was sad for her that I could never get her owner to see her for who she was, not the fantasy horse the woman read about as a child.

I do believe that we can get ourselves so lost in the fantasy we want to live that we lose sight of the horse as an individual – with needs, preferences, and individual personalities. Having that special bond with a particular horse is not something you can conjure. Just as with human relationships, it can be complicated. In the case of your horse, you may choose him but he doesn’t have that same option. Even if you do everything “right” he just may not be ‘that into you’. And even if he really does bond, as Noble has with me, his idea of the relationship may not match your fantasy.

In the case of Noble, he has set very clear parameters around how engaged he’s willing to be – and at 17.1 hands and 1600 pounds he has every ability to do so. As much as he is bonded to me, and as much as I care about him, this relationship will never likely reach “heart horse” status. Not because he won’t do what I want, but because there is little we can do together. It is through shared development, shared experiences, shared celebrations, and overcoming challenges together that the bond takes on that “heart horse” level.

Noble has set very definite limits on what he’s willing to engage in and for how long (about 5 minutes)

This leads me to my other issue with the “heart horse” idea – that people put too much into it. When you reach that level it is most certainly an amazing feeling. But you can have a lot of fun without you and your horse falling in love with each other. I have loved many horses over the decades, but only two have truly reached that level that I consider a “heart horse” – or, to borrow a phrase from one of my favorite dog trainers and behavioral scientists, my “soul horse”. For some it can feel like failure if they don’t reach that level in their relationship. As with the woman I described above, they may strive too hard to conjure that relationship and end up making it impossible. Just as we cannot force the kind of human relationships we have (that always ends badly), we cannot predict or force the relationship with our horse.

So, where does that leave us? As with all relationships that are important to us, we should make sure we are listening to the other party. We have our wishes and desires, and they have theirs. In the case of the horse, you hold the position of power. It is incumbent upon you to not abuse that position, and to work all the harder to ensure that you give the horse enough voice to let you know how they are feeling. That may not always yield the answer you want to hear. All you can do is make the best relationship possible. Your horse may end up just an ’employee’, though hopefully one who does not resent the work. He may become a ‘buddy’. I have met those for whom just being a casual acquaintance with their horse, no other demands made, is all they need or want. My best advice is do what you can to create a relationship that meets both of your needs. Enjoy what you have – not everyone you meet turns into the love of your life, but you enjoy friends just the same. But if you just so happen to reach that level of the relationship that truly feels like you have a “heart horse” then don’t let anyone tell you it is a bad thing. Embrace it and feel blessed!

Be good to your horses!

Lia

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