I Fancied Myself a Horse Trainer Once

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When Tempo was very young I used brushing as a training reward.  Puck loved it too!

At the time Tempo was born, I considered myself a decent “horse trainer”. I had studied Parelli Natural Horsemanship for almost a decade (I was an early adopter here in the U.S.) and had completed Level III with Shoki. I had also spent a year studying clicker training (positive reinforcement training) learning the basics of both Alexandra Kurland’s method (for horses) and Karen Pryor’s method (for dogs). My ex-husband was also a very accomplished dog trainer (specializing in clicker training). I had worked with a wide variety of horses over the years and I took pride in the fact that I had never met a horse I wasn’t able to make significant progress with.

But, I had never raised a foal from birth. So, prior to Tempo’s arrival I reviewed all of Parelli’s videos on working with young horses. I also gathered feedback from a number of clicker trainers, but because clicker training for horses was just beginning to catch on at that time, I didn’t know of any who had trained a horse from birth using clicker training. For that reason, I decided I would start training Tempo using some of the proven early training exercises recommended by natural horsemanship trainers.

One of these lessons (done only after lots of trust-building to be sure the foal feels safe with you and is comfortable being touched all over, etc.) is to teach the youngster to move off of pressure. Typically the first step is to teach the foal to move forward with light pressure from behind (using a rope around the horse’s haunch).

The first time I tried this exercise with Tempo, she initially leaned back against the light pressure, which was expected (this is instinctual behavior) and is also what I had seen many other foals do on training videos. In this situation, natural horsemanship training says, “Don’t relieve the pressure until the foal takes a step forward… then reward”. So, I held firm, “like a post”, as I had been taught to do.

Within just a few seconds something completely unexpected happened. Baby Tempo collapsed to the ground and started panting. She did not struggle, or put up a fight before she collapsed. She had not made any obvious attempt to “solve” the puzzle I had presented her with. Rather, the situation triggered a severe panic attack. Her legs had gone limp and she was lying on the ground in a heap but her neck was rigid, her nostrils were flared and her eyes were wide. She was in obvious emotional distress. I quickly removed the rope, tossed it as far away from her as I could and tried to lift her back onto her feet. But Tempo couldn’t stand up; her legs just crumbled under her again. I was flabbergasted… and heartbroken to see my filly in such distress.

For at least 10 minutes I sat there with her, feeling horrible. I apologized and stroked her neck and tried to help her feel safe again. Eventually, her heart rate and breathing returned to normal and she was able to stand up again. In that moment I promised her I would never do that to her again.

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Me (with my clicker training vest) and Young Tempo.

And that’s how/why I made the decision to train Tempo (aka Little Miss Sensitive!) using exclusively positive reinforcement training.   I must admit, however, that there was one other time I fell back on trying to use pressure to get Baby Tempo to do something. It was after I had already halter trained her and she was leading well using positive reinforcement training. But, on this particular morning I was in a hurry and needed to get her moved to another pasture before I went to work. On our way, something worried her and she stopped. Out of impatience, I applied light pressure to the halter and she resisted, starting to tense up. Instead of heeding her warning, I added a bit more pressure thinking, “Surely she can handle this now that she understands leading”. Again, Tempo panicked. I could see what was happening and I released the lead rope, but it was too late. She reared up and violently threw herself over backwards.

Horses can get severely injured doing this so I was mortified and terrified. I felt horrible. Thankfully, she got up and appeared to be fine. I apologized to her again and, from then on I always took my time getting her where she needed to be on terms she could handle.

I had never worked with a horse (or even known of one) that had this sort of extreme panic response to pressure. At the time I was just thankful that we knew an alternate method of training so that I didn’t have to try to teach her to “submit” to pressure. Instead I could teach her to cooperate positively using verbal or touch cues and rewards. Unfortunately, having this alternative method made it easy for me to NOT deal directly with Tempo’s extreme fear of pressure (which I later grew to understand was actually a fear of losing control). Instead, I simply avoided the situation.

It was easy – and FUN – to “avoid the situation” because Tempo LOVED clicker training.   In fact, she became a Youtube sensation (and had quite a loyal following) when we started posting videos of our progress to show that it’s possible to use clicker training exclusively to raise a foal. For the first year of Tempo’s life, we all had a blast and everyone was convinced that she would grow up to be “the most amazing horse!”

You can see one of our clicker training videos of Tempo here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qLDbkFaVXh8

In hindsight however, I wish I knew then what I know now: that it’s possible to help a horse overcome even very extreme fears and to replace those fears with confidence using a method called Constructive Approach Training. I wish I had known this because when Tempo was almost one year of age she was stricken with a debilitating (and inoperable) coffin bone cyst in her right hind foot. This life-threatening bone condition forever changed the course of our life together and completely destroyed the positive foundation we had created with Tempo using clicker training. The experience sent us all swirling in a downward spiral of emotional chaos and frustration that lasted for years. I will share some of what I learned from that dark chapter of our lives in my next blog post.

“There is no such thing as darkness; only a failure to see.” – Malcolm Muggeridge

Raising a Foal is Hard to Do (well)!

Herd Reunion Day 010

My little runner!

Having only ever bred and raised one foal, to say I’m “no expert” on the subject would be an understatement. But I do have my one personal experience (raising Tempo) and in case some of the enlightening things I’ve learned might be helpful to others who are thinking of venturing on a similar journey, I’m motivated to share.

Lesson#1:  Breeding is not only complicated; it’s only one piece of the puzzle!  I started out with a lovely mare.  And I picked an amazing stallion of proven bloodlines.  But genetics is a funny thing.  It turns out there are some aspects of Puck’s personality that weren’t readily apparent in her life with us but that got passed on in spades to her daughter. Remember how I mentioned in Puck’s story that she became aggressive during her stay at NC State for eye surgery?   Well, in hindsight, this was an important clue to her very sensitive nature, especially in response to situations where she feels she has lost control of what’s being done to her.  Sensitivity can be a wonderful attribute in certain situations and an Achilles heel in others.

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Running…

Lesson #2: Foals are born with distinct personalities and physical attributes that shine through from even their first days of life. Tempo was curious, exploratory and BOLD from the moment she got her feet working under her. She was also physically BIG and strong (granted, she was born three weeks late!), with a huge play drive. Tempo has also had strong opinions about… well, just about everything… from very early on! She is extremely smart but also gets extremely frustrated when things don’t go her way. I’ve seen many other foals (both live and via video) at 2-3 days old, and most are still shaky and uncertain on their new legs. By Tempo’s second day of life she was

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Two days old.

already racing around her paddock, demonstrating perfect flying lead changes and executing sliding stops like an extreme athlete. In fact, after her first few hours of life, Baby Tempo rarely walked anywhere. If she had somewhere she wanted to go, she typically ran, often making quite a dramatic production out of it. To this day, whenever anyone asks me what one word best describes Tempo, my immediate response is, “Busy.” She’s always been a very busy horse!

Itchy Tempo 9cLesson #3: If smart, creative, energetic foals like Tempo don’t have other foals to play with, they will turn just about anything into a game! I have a hilarious series of photos of Baby Tempo playing (literally for hours on end) with a PVC pipe “post” that we used to temporarily rope off sections of pasture for the older horses. Neither of the other horses ever paid a lick of attention to these posts so Tempo’s fascination withItchy Tempo 13c them was hers alone; it was clearly not learned behavior! Two of Tempo’s other early favorite games, both of which she also made up entirely on her own (and one that she essentially taught ME to play with her), were “chase the wheelbarrow” (click here for a video of it!) and “put your hind feet Itchy Tempo 14cin the ground feeder”. I’ve never known of any other horse – ever – that taught itself (without any reinforcement from a human or another horse) to lift and place, first one hind foot and then the other, carefully inside a small rubber ground feeder. Most horses will paw at objects they want to explore with their front feet, but Tempo has always preferred to explore and play with objects with her hind feet. This also cannot be a learned behavior because I’ve never seen either of my other horses do it – ever, in any context!

Herd Reunion Day 003

Puck letting Tempo behave badly.

Lesson #4: Without consistent/effective discipline from older horses, especially more experienced mares in a herd… and without other youngsters with which (or against whom) they can develop and hone their own leadership skills, young horses have a very difficult time learning to respect boundaries or to control their emotions. Puck was a loving and protective momma, but (bless her heart) she lacked the experience or skills to know how to effectively discipline her growing and increasingly rambunctious filly. So, Tempo nursed whenever, wherever and however she felt like it. For example, when Puck started trying to tell her “not now” with some gentle hind foot warning kicks, Tempo quickly figured out all she had to do was approach from behind Puck, walking backwards so that Puck’s defensive kicks would be buffered by her own sturdy hind end (and not her vulnerable face!). Tempo would craftily creep in using this “backing up” approach until

Stallion-like 9

Baby Tempo learning to rule the roost!

she was safely in position for nursing! Puck’s a smart mare, but she had no response for this level of cunning… except resignation. As Tempo got older, she also regularly bit, kicked at, and climbed all over her mom… including (literally) right onto Puck’s back a few times! When we humans stepped in and exerted control, Baby Tempo was often driven to extreme emotional meltdowns. (Until I met Tempo, I never knew horses could actually throw hissy fits!)

Thankfully, Shoki did provide a slightly firmer influence; he was at least able to channel Tempo’s energy into games of HIS choice. This meant Baby Tempo learned how to “face fight” – a strategy and skill game that geldings (and probably bachelor stallions) tend to engage in. Thus, Tempo learned to be very confident with the use of her head and face. To her, “socializing” was equivalent to “rough-housing”. We worked hard to find training methods that helped to develop some balance in her social skills but when a foal spends 24 hours a day with her herd mates and (on average) maybe one hour a day interacting with humans… it’s difficult to get the upper hand overall. The lack of structure and discipline from our small and inexperienced “herd” during Tempo’s early life created some big challenges for me in regard to her overall training and socialization. These early challenges grew into very serious problems after she developed a life-threatening hoof condition as a yearling and required medical treatment and extended stall rest for recovery.

Future blog entries will focus more on my ever-evolving training approaches and challenges with Tempo. Her early learning experiences in the herd combined with some unfortunate circumstances all came together to create “the perfect storm” in her life… and in mine.

“Let me embrace thee, sour adversity, for wise men say it is the wisest course.” -William Shakespeare

Tempo

It’s hard to know where to start with Tempo’s story. But I guess the beginning is always the logical place.

Tempo Fire Mane

Tempo: My Fire Child!

Given my personal involvement with equine rescue work, some might wonder why I would choose to breed a horse of my own.   It’s a valid question.

The answer is a simple one, but not one I’m especially proud of: EGO.

All my life I had dreamed of getting good at jumping, and of having a horse that was a talented/eager jumper. Lilli wasn’t physically sound enough for jumping. Shoki wasn’t mentally sound enough for jumping (unless you had a suicide wish). And, Puck made no bones about it: she hated jumping. I also knew that when it comes to adopting rescue horses, one thing is certain: you never know quite what you are getting because most rescue horses have sketchy histories, at best.

So, rather than take a risk on adopting a horse I knew relatively little about, I decided to breed Puck (a mare I knew well and who had many desirable traits I wanted to pass on) to a stallion I could hand-pick to “improve upon” Puck’s physical conformation, athletic ability and eagerness for jumping. In my mind, this was most certainly going to result in a foal with both the physical and mental fortitude to become my “dream” horse for jumping or eventing.

Well… I now have a personal joke/slogan that goes something like this: “If you want (insert your higher power) to laugh at you, go ahead and tell him/her your plans.”

By 2006, our financial situation had improved considerably and it was once again feasible for me to consider supporting three horses. So, I started researching stallions and learning what I could about picking a good mate for Puck. I pretty much knew which stallion would be my “baby’s daddy” as soon as I saw him: My Rugged Destiny.

Everything went relatively smoothly with the insemination, and an ultrasound in March of 2006 confirmed the pregnancy.   At that point we started brainstorming possible (gender-neutral) names for the foal. I decided on the registered name of Lark’s Eternal Destiny and a more informal “barn” name of Tempo. All that was left after that was the wait!!

As Tempo’s due-date of late February 2007 finally neared… then passed, I learned just how strong a mare’s natural instinct to give birth in privacy is. I was extremely eager to witness the live birth because, for me, this would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But Puck had other ideas.

Once the tell-tale signs of a not-so-distant delivery began to show, I moved Puck to a private paddock where she could still see, but not interact directly with, her herd-mate Shoki. I also started a nightly routine of checking on Puck religiously at 8PM, 11PM, 2AM, 4AM and 6AM because everyone told me most mares instinctively give birth at night when it’s peaceful, quiet and safe. For three solid weeks Puck stoically opted NOT to give birth. In hindsight I realize this was because she quickly figured out my schedule and was not confident she could complete the delivery before I returned to interrupt it. Being a new mother, Puck had only her instincts to rely on – and every bone in her body was clearly telling her not to give birth until she was certain she would not be disturbed!

By the end of three weeks I was so exhausted I just couldn’t continue the vigil. So, on March 18th, 2007 I checked on Puck just before midnight. She was showing no new signs that would indicate imminent labor. So, I decided I HAD to get some uninterrupted sleep that night. I went inside, set my alarm for 6AM and fell into a coma-like slumber.

When I didn’t show up at 2AM (or even 4AM) to check on her that night, Puck must have realized this was her golden opportunity, and she did not hesitate to take advantage of it! When my alarm went off at 6AM, I rushed to the kitchen to look out the window. In the foggy dawn twilight I could just make out a large white form at Puck’s feet. As I squinted to try and bring the form into better focus, it suddenly started dancing around and I realized it was a FOAL – already on its feet!!! I screamed to my ex-husband and we went running out to meet the long-awaited Tempo.

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Puck and Tempo a few hours after Tempo’s birth.

I can’t lie, at first I was devastated that I had missed witnessing Tempo’s birth… and more than a little hurt that Puck had so clearly chosen not to let me share that experience with her. But, my sadness was quickly replaced by a deep pride in Puck for handling her first (and only) birth like a seasoned pro. Puck also happily let us approach and handle her new foal, without a hint of jealousy or over-protectiveness! After carefully inspecting Tempo for any signs of health issues, the pure bliss of knowing we had a healthy filly and the pure delight that her contagious personality immediately instilled in our hearts, left absolutely no room for sadness of any kind.

You can watch a video showing scenes from Tempo’s first few days of life by clicking here.

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Puck encouraging Tempo to nurse after we showed her what to do.

Puck was naturally a very nurturing mom but she did need some help initially in allowing Tempo to nurse. Having no experience with nursing a foal, Puck seemed shocked by how painful her teats were initially. But with a bit of encouragement from us, she allowed Baby Tempo to latch on and after that, it was never an issue again!

We made sure that Puck and Tempo had ample time to bond as mother and baby for the first two weeks of life. But, because Shoki had been forced to live by himself during all this time, we were very eager to introduce him to Tempo and to see how Puck would react. We began by moving Shoki to an adjacent pasture so the horses could interact over a fence IF they wanted to. It was absolutely amazing to see Tempo’s curiosity triggered as soon as she saw Shoki through the fence. It was even more amazing to see Puck’s motherly instinct to protect her baby override all the history and existing pecking order between Shoki and Puck. Here’s how the first encounter played out:

Shoki & Baby Tempo

Shoki keeping a watchful eye on “his” little girl.

Shoki approached the fence to get a better look at Tempo. Tempo eagerly (and without hesitation, I might add!) started to trot over to meet him. Puck saw what was about to happen and she AGGRESSIVELY charged the fence, telling Shoki in no uncertain terms to “Back Off!”. Shoki clearly recognized that this was no “normal Puck”, and quickly moved away from the fence line. Puck then herded Baby Tempo off in the opposite direction. For the next few hours, every time Tempo started to sneak over toward Shoki again, Puck herded her back. But, by the next day, Tempo’s determination to meet her “Uncle Shoki” won out. And, to our great relief (and Puck’s too, I’m sure), Shoki was nothing but an absolute gentleman. In fact, he was clearly smitten with Tempo from the first moment he laid eyes on her and he soon became her mentor and preferred playmate in our small herd of three.

 

And thus began a new chapter in my incredible learning journey with horses. It is a chapter all four of us (three horses and one human) entered woefully unprepared in many ways. But I don’t believe in accidents. The Universe found it’s own way of bringing me, Shoki, Puck and Tempo together – for a reason far greater than any of our individual lives. My ever-present and unaltered herd of three has been together for nine years now (and counting!). Our lives together have been filled with laughter, adventure, playfulness, sadness, tranquility, pain, frustration, patience, wonder, fear, uncertainty, illness, injury, good health, change, more change, and always… companionship, respect, care and appreciation for one another. In every sense of the word, we are, family.

Group Shot 2004

Puck, Tempo and Shoki

I will be writing more about the unfolding herd dynamics and individual relationships between Shoki, Puck, Tempo and, yes, even me. I would never recommend the combination of a human who is a novice at foal-raising and two adult horses who are also novices in the same regard, trying to raise a foal together. But, at the same time, I will never regret my decision to breed, raise and train a foal of my own, simply because the experience has changed us all in monumental ways. I now truly understand the critical importance of healthy herd communities. I have a much clearer understanding of the various roles herd/community/family members play. I also understand the magnitude of what it means to be responsible for creating and nurturing a life – equine or otherwise. And, perhaps most importantly, I now understand that it’s possible for one very small (who later grew to be one very BIG) horse to teach me more about myself and about living an authentic life than a whole world of human beings ever has.

“Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers.”  – Alfred Lord Tennyson

 

 

And Then There Were Three… I mean, Two Again

2004

Believe it or not, this is the only photo I can find with Lilli, Puck and Shoki all in the same shot (sort of)!

After we purchased Puck, my personal herd became three for the first time. This brought some significant changes (in addition to Shoki’s bossy insecurities which I mentioned in my last blog post). For example:

  • I was once again able to take Lilli out for rides – just the two of us. This is because Shoki could tolerate being left behind now that he had Puck to keep him company. Lilli was a horse I could hop on bareback and go anywhere, feeling completely safe, so I cherished the opportunities to do so. Lilli was as steady and solid as they come which meant we could casually ride past properties with herds of other horses (or even playful/curious cows!). When I was on her, I had no need to worry about dogs that sometimes seemed to come running/barking out of nowhere and we could even ride down roadsides with busy traffic. To this day, my memories of riding Lilli provide me with a mental image of the type of safe/unflappable partner I strive to develop in my other horses.
  • When I did take Lilli off for rides, Shoki’s behavior toward Puck changed dramatically. I didn’t really understand the herd dynamics at the time but even then, I found them fascinating. The fact is, Shoki and Lilli were pair-bonded long before Puck arrived on the scene. So, Shoki had two potential reasons for not being too “welcoming” to Puck when Lilli was around:
  1. Puck was a potential threat to the existing pair-bond he had with Lilli.
  1. Puck was a potential threat to his rank as “second-in-command” within the herd.
2006

Shoki saw Puck differently when Lilli wasn’t around!

However, when Lilli was out of the picture (and it’s important to note that horses live exclusively in the present moment so there was no “wait until Lilli gets back” kind of rationale to be used), Shoki had to adjust to his new reality. If life (either temporarily or permanently) involved just the two of them, then it behooved him to treat Puck differently. For those periods when Lilli was absent, Puck became his alternate “pair bond”. As submissive as Puck was/is, even when it was just the two of them, she never attempted to threaten Shoki’s rank. So, I can only deduce that his bullying behavior toward her when Lilli was around was simply his way of defending the social pair bond he valued so much with his herd leader.

All of these dynamics became more relevant to me in 2004 when I was faced with some very difficult decisions. It all started when Puck developed an ulcer (most likely from a scratch to her cornea) in her left eye. Those of you who have ever dealt with eye injuries in horses know how quickly they can go from “mildly concerning” to “critical”. We treated the original ulcer with anti-bacterial eye ointments and anti-inflammatory drops/paste, per our vet’s instructions. At first the eye seemed to improve, but then slowly her symptoms worsened again. Additional tests confirmed our greatest fears: the infection was now fungal, and aggressive. We transported Puck to our local vet clinic so that a lavage could be inserted that would allow medications to be “flooded” into her eye at two-hour intervals around the clock. But within another week it was clear we still weren’t making progress against the infection.

At that point, our equine vet explained that we had two options: a fairly simple surgery to permanently remove the eye (leaving her completely blind on that side) or a risker, much more complicated surgery to try and clean out the infection and then attach a skin graft over the ulcerated part of her eye (called a conjunctival flap). If successful, we were told, the second surgery would leave her eye intact, with at least partial vision.

Since Puck was still a young horse (only 5 years old), and because we worried that if she had only one eye this might make her less desirable in the future if we ever had to sell her (meaning it might be hard to find her another good home!), we decided to do everything we could to save her eye.

So, we loaded Puck up again and transported her to North Carolina State University’s equine hospital where the surgery could be done by a specialist. The surgeon and veterinary staff there were outstanding, but the whole ordeal was long, stressful (especially on Puck who had little tolerance for pain or being medicated and often behaved aggressively toward the vet techs!), and expensive. In the end, Puck’s recovery involved not only a very lengthy and delicate eye surgery, but 10 days of initial recovery at NC State, and then 3 more months on oral and topical (eye lavage) antibiotics/anti-fungal medications we administered around the clock at home, many follow-up visits by our local vet and restricted movement/social interaction for Puck for about 6 months.

Puck's Eye

Here you can see how the scar in Puck’s eye looks today.

If I had it to do all over again, I would opt for the easier surgery/recovery. (I know several one-eyed horses and they are all well adjusted!!) But, we made the best decision we could at the time (you only know what you know!) and ultimately, we did save her eye! And, after it was all over, Puck adjusted amazingly well to her limited vision in that eye and within a year after the surgery no one ever knew anything was unusual without looking very closely at her eye and seeing the scar.

Sadly, when the full magnitude of the financial costs for Puck’s veterinary care hit us, we had to face another hard reality: we simply couldn’t afford to own three horses. Not only was it going to be very challenging to pay off the large vet bills we owed both to NC State and our local equine vet, but another emergency could strike at any moment. The more horses we had, the greater that risk.

Given what we had just been through with Puck (and the fact that my ex-husband was very emotionally attached to her), plus the promise I had made to Billie/Shoki, along with Lilli’s potential sale value as a “safe and steady” riding partner… I knew what I had to do. Having also been involved with rescue work for a number of years, I knew that, of our three horses, Lilli was the most likely (due to her ability to get along well with any and all other horses and her suitability for any rider including beginners) not to end up in a bad situation down the line.

So, as much as it broke my heart, I used my personal networks to find a new owner for Lilli that felt like a “perfect match”. I have no regrets over the choice of home she went to. They were wonderful and showered her with nothing but love! They also had the financial resources to provide her with the best vet care possible, which I was so thankful for when she later ruptured her tendon in a tragic pasture accident.

Shoki and Puck Napping

Shoki and Puck became quite bonded after Lilli left.

The gap Lilli’s absence left in our collective hearts and lives was immense. But it also bonded us as a horse/human herd in new ways and helped us focus on making the most of every day together.

Although Shoki was anything but a natural or experienced leader, he still somehow found it within himself to step up and take on the role of permanent herd leader. Unfortunately, he remained prone to panic in stressful situations and often lacked the confidence and composure to provide effective leadership. So when “scary” things happened (such as when fireworks or gunshots would go off, or when the neighbors decided it was time to power-wash their siding, have bon-fires or play with their remote control airplanes), things could get pretty hairy in our horsey herd of two. When possible, I would go out and try to provide a bit of calm leadership, which they both craved in those moments. But often, this was not possible and so the two horses were left to sort it out on their own as best they could.

Nine times out of ten it went something like this:

A scary thing would happen. Both horses would startle and/or bolt. Puck would look to Shoki for leadership. Shoki would be pre-occupied with his own emotions/adrenaline. Puck would then panic more and do what terrified horses do: flee. Shoki, not wanting to be left alone at such a terrifying time would run after her. Often they would then run around together like maniacs for an extended period. Eventually, once Shoki regained his composure enough to decide the scary thing was not actually a deadly threat, he would try to take charge again. But, by then, Puck had ample evidence that Shoki’s leadership can’t be trusted in scary situations so she would essentially say, “Screw you, I’m busy taking care of my own self!”. Shoki would then realize he had lost control of the situation (and his herd) and he would begin bullying Puck, trying to force her to pay more attention to him than the scary thing she was still worried about.

Obviously, this was not an ideal situation for either of them. But, it provides plenty of lessons for us in our daily lives. How many of you have ever worked for a boss (or had a parent or older sibling, even) who melted down under pressure? How quickly did you lose trust and faith in him/her? Or maybe you’ve found yourself in Shoki’s situation before: given responsibilities that are beyond your skill-set or courage to handle effectively? The coping strategies we develop in such dysfunctional situations are often not healthy at all. And sadly, once these dysfunctional behavior patterns become established, they can be next to impossible to break without intensive intervention.

My ex-husband and I did our best over the next few years to become more knowledgeable, skilled and empathetic horse trainers so that we could help fill the leadership gap, at least when the horses were with us. We found that clicker training (positive reinforcement) was the most effective tool in terms of building confidence, calmness, bravery and a more “thinking” vs. “reacting” horse. But, when left to their own devices alone in the pasture – even to this day – Shoki and Puck still fall back on those early coping strategies and behavior patterns in panic situations.

In 2007, however, things in our herd changed again. That’s when Tempo was born and our collective (horse/human) journey into foal-raising began…

Tempo day 1 046

My next blog post will be Tempo’s story!

Puck

Puck Body

My ex-husband fell in love with Puck at first sight!

In my last post I told the story of how Shoki came into my life, and into my herd. At the time, it was a herd of just two, which I had learned can work well when keeping adult domestic horses. I believe this is because even in large feral herds, the horses within the herd will frequently “pair-bond”, forming especially close friendships with just one or two other horses that they then spend most of their time with.

Through the years, I certainly have seen pairings that did not work well, and others that were complete disasters, but in most cases when two horses find themselves alone together, they will choose to bond vs. being alone. In regard to Shoki and Lilli, they were an easy and well-matched pair.  Lilli’s calm, centered confidence helped to re-balance some of Shoki’s insecurities. Meanwhile, Shoki’s playful spirit brought out the kid in Lilli from time to time. Life was good…

…except when I wanted to take Lilli out riding without Shoki or trailer her to ride with friends, leaving him home alone. Being left by himself elicited pure terror in Shoki. He would scream and run the fence line for hours on end.   We thought with repetition his panicked episodes would subside, or at least diminish in intensity. But they did not. The commotion he created was not only unhealthy for him (intense stress levels!) but his ear-piercing and incessant screams drove our neighbors (and my ex-husband) crazy. Eventually, I gave up trying to take Lilli anywhere and instead opted to focus on training Shoki to be my “primary” riding partner. Although he hated to trailer alone, once we arrived and joined up with other horses and riders, he was fine. And, Lilli had learned to handle being left behind quite maturely, especially if I put out some of her favorite hay as a treat to distract her while we left!

After about a year, my ex-husband decided he wanted a horse of his own. Shoki was too small (and unpredictable) for him, plus by then he had become my primary riding horse. Lilli was too “laid back” for my ex’s taste and she was also unsound for heavy work due to arthritis in her front legs. We had started studying the Parelli Natural Horsemanship program and my ex wanted a horse that could take him “up the levels”. After searching for a couple of months, and testing out two horses that ended up not being a good fit for him, we found Puck in September of 2003.

Puck Face

Puck is a kind and gentle mare, with a keen intellect and playful personality.

Puck is a beautiful dun with buckskin coloring, a prominent black dorsal stripe and the characteristic dun tiger striping on her legs. At the time, she was called Cutter (short for her registered name, Cutter Eternal Knight). She had been salvaged from a local livestock auction as a 3 year old by a friend (Elizabeth) who I knew through our local equine rescue network. Elizabeth and her teenage daughter had seen something they liked in the fiesty little mare who they say had been “cowboyed” pretty good by the folks who brought her to the auction. So they bought her, took her home, loved on her and gently re-trained her under saddle.

When we met Cutter, it was love at first sight for my ex-husband. He was taken by her coloring and drawn to her friendly, playful personality. He adored her gentle and cuddly ground manners. And, he loved the combination of spunk, energy and trustworthiness she displayed under saddle. We took her home on a trial basis, but I knew as soon as she hopped on the trailer without a moment’s hesitation that she would be a keeper.   Within a couple of days, my Shakespeare loving ex-husband had renamed her Puck, after the magical fairy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Fortunately, Puck transitioned into our herd without much ado at all. This was partly because we introduced them slowly, keeping Puck in a separate (but adjoining) paddock for her entire trial period. We did not want to risk letting her get hurt when we did not yet own her. So, once we did turn her out with Lilli and Shoki they had all already had ample time to get to know one another over the fence and to establish the herd ranking without any real physical contact.

At that time, I didn’t understand that herds of three can be challenging. Puck was an extremely submissive young adult so she naturally stayed on the outskirts of the herd, spending most of her time off by herself. This was a good thing in terms of bonding between Puck and my ex-husband (she loved getting attention from us humans!). But for Puck’s social development as an adolescent and as a productive member of the herd community, it wasn’t very helpful at all.

Lilli and Puck got along just fine (and in fact, Puck worshiped the ground Lilli walked on just like pretty much every other horse did!) but Shoki would have preferred to remain in their established herd of two. He was not used to having to earn or protect his place in the herd and he didn’t like this new sense of insecurity. So, whenever Puck tried to “cozy” in, Shoki would bully her away. Interestingly, Lilli rarely intervened or tried to protect Puck from Shoki’s posturing. Granted, Shoki was never out to really hurt Puck, he just refused to let her into their “inner circle”. Thus, Puck often had bite marks on her rump from Shoki’s “bossy big brother” behavior. In hindsight, I think Lilli was just letting “children be children” and trusting that eventually the two less mature horses would work it all out among themselves. At any rate, she clearly didn’t see any reason to waste her precious energy refereeing their petty squabbles.

If I had understood more about herd behavior and the importance of a healthy herd dynamic in developing well-rounded individuals, I might have considered getting a fourth horse so that Puck didn’t have to be the “odd horse out” all the time and Shoki didn’t have to feel so threatened all the time.   A buddy would probably have helped Puck develop greater self-confidence and would have provided opportunities for her to practice and develop her own social skills in a more productive and emotionally safe environment. Or, a fourth horse might have caused a shift in the overall herd rankings that could have eased some of the tension. But, because our finances were tight and we already felt indulgent for having THREE horses and only TWO humans, the idea of adding another horse never even entered our minds!

Puck Graze

Puck spent much of her time alone, grazing on the outskirts of the herd.

Although I don’t know any details about Puck’s birth or her first three years of life, I’m willing to bet she did not grow up in a functional herd community with other babies to play with and older herd mates to mentor her.   I say this not only because she was so submissive in my own herd but also because when we first tried to take her out riding with friends, her behavior toward unfamiliar horses was extreme.

When introduced to individual geldings, Puck often immediately went into season and would turn and invite them to mount her, a behavior that quickly earned her the nickname “hussy” among our riding friends. This behavior that seemed humorous to us all then, I now understand to be a symptom of emotional over-stimulation and insecurity. When Puck had to interact with any group of two or more unfamiliar horses, she would become very agitated and would kick out at them if they tried to enter her personal space. Even while riding on trails, Puck quickly earned the reputation of being a “kicker” and we had to tie a ribbon on her tail, which is the universal warning for other riders not to approach within kicking range.

Thankfully, a Parelli instructor recognized Puck’s behaviors as insecurity during a clinic we participated in with some good friends. The instructor had us do an exercise with Puck that worked WONDERS on her social insecurities. We put Puck (with my ex-husband riding) in the center. They stood still while the rest of us (also on horseback) formed a wide circle around her. The starting distance between Puck and the other horses was determined by her ability to remain calm.  One we determined her “safe” distance, we all walked our horses in an organized circle around Puck. Slowly, we made the circle smaller and smaller. Each time Puck started to get nervous, we stayed (still circling at the walk) at that distance until she relaxed. Then we would move in a little closer. We continued this exercise until we were able to form a tight circle around Puck (using just three horses at a time) and she could stay completely relaxed. I would say it took us about 45 minutes to complete this process and from that day forward, Puck never kicked at another horse while being ridden again!

At the time, we all thought this was magic and that the instructor was a miracle-worker. But, all she really did was give Puck the time and space to process her own emotions in a “safe” herd environment. The exercise showed Puck what she had never had the opportunity to learn in a natural herd community: that she didn’t need to be afraid of other (well socialized) horses and that she could feel safe and protected in a structured herd community – even a temporary one.

This was a powerful lesson for me as well, especially as a herd custodian. It showed me that if we can empathize with insecure horses (instead of punishing the unwanted behavior that often results), we can help them learn to become more confident in their own skin.

“The best way a mentor can prepare another leader is to expose him or her to other great people.” -John C. Maxwell

Shoki

Shoki Glamour

I can’t tell Shoki’s story without first telling Billie’s story…

My friend Billie became the custodian (sometime around 1998, I believe) of a gorgeous Arabian gelding, after negotiating him away from a trainer who didn’t respect the horse’s sensitive nature. This horse had a long, flowing black mane, a striking white blaze down his face and three white socks. Billie re-named the horse Shoki, after a rather obscure Chinese deity that protects against evil spirits and is the guardian of hearth and home. At the time, Billie could never have known how apt his new name would become…

I met Shoki around the same time I met Lilli. The two horses were both living at Billie’s farm in Hartsville, where I volunteered in exchange for riding privileges. Billie loved Arabians and owned three others as well – all beautiful grays. At that time, Billie was the only person with the guts and determination it took to ride Shoki. He was fearful and skittish, with a drop-and-spin move that would have given rodeo cowboys a run for their money. Billie was a good rider, but I’m pretty sure she got thrown by Shoki every single time I joined them on a trail ride!

Shoki was also completely claustrophobic about being tied or mounted, terrified of trailers and was well known for panicking, especially when it was time to get his hooves trimmed. Oh, and did I mention he would charge anyone (human or equine) who came near his stall, especially at mealtime?

The Eye to His Soul

Shoki’s soulful eye.

But, none of this mattered to Billie. She was in love with the horse. She could see in him what few other people were able to see: a sweet and gentle soul. And even though Billie didn’t exactly know how to “fix” Shoki’s difficult behaviors, she knew they were simply based in fear due to the way he had been treated in the past. She forgave Shoki’s shortcomings and believed that love could heal what was broken in him.

Before Lilli and I moved to Charleston in 2000, Billie encouraged me to ride Shoki a couple of times. He was a very different horse in the dressage arena than on the trail. The comfort and security of an enclosed space and routine patterns seemed to almost put Shoki into a trance. He would collect himself into a nice frame and perform low-level dressage routines in Billie’s arena like a champ. And this is how I first felt the magic of riding a horse that can float on four feet. After my first ride on Shoki in the dressage arena, I understood why Billie believed he was so special.

Fast forward to January of 2002.

That’s when Billie told me, in a letter, that she had cancer. For the next few months Billie and I talked on the phone every week. She was receiving intensive chemo and radiation treatments that made her very sick, but she remained positive and optimistic. At least outwardly. She continued to tell me stories about the farm and horses. She was so thankful for her husband, Leslie, who was helping to take care of their herd, and her. The cancer treatments caused her to have severe blisters on her hands and feet. And her tongue. Eating was tortuous. She lost a tremendous amount of weight and almost all of her strength.

One day as we were about to hang up from our weekly call she said, “Kim, can I ask you a favor?”

“Of course, “ I replied, “Anything.”

I’ll never forget the words Billie said next: “Will you take Shoki home to your farm? Just until I’m strong enough to take care of him again myself?”

That was the moment I knew Billie knew she was dying.

I knew she would never dream of giving that horse up – for anything. But I also knew that if she knew she wasn’t going to get better, she would never risk the possibility of letting Shoki fall back into unloving hands again after she was gone. That’s just the kind of person she was.

So, of course I said yes. We both pretended we didn’t know what this agreement really meant, but we both did.

After Andy died, my ex-husband and I kept a friend’s pony at our farm for a couple of months to keep Lilli company. Then I served as a temporary foster home for another rescue mare. Lilli did just fine with both of those horses but I wondered how it would go (for both Lilli and Shoki) when I brought him home.   The two horses had lived at Billie’s farm together but were never turned out in the same pasture. Lilli was always turned out in the herd with Billie’s prized gray Arabian gelding, Shah. Shoki got turned out with the other herd because the two geldings liked to play dominance games all day long and Billie worried they might hurt each other. Even though they weren’t turned out together, I remember the two Arabians “face fighting” over the fence for hours on end. I didn’t know it at the time, but this sort of play fighting is a common behavior among young stallion friends in wild bachelor herds.

The day I went to pick Shoki up, it took us a long time to coax him onto the unfamiliar trailer I had rented to carry him home. I will never forget how Billie, thinner and frailer than I could ever have imagined she might become, insisted on walking out and offering Shoki sweet words of encouragement (and coaching me as she always did) until we got him on the trailer. Billie then said a hurried goodbye, insisting I get on the road before Shoki got too agitated. It was a stressful ride for him (to this day Shoki still hates to trailer alone) but we made it. I was both nervous and eager to see what would happen when Lilli and Shoki were reunited. For some reason, I expected fireworks, one way or another – either of excitement or disapproval. But what happened was simply lovely.

Lilli & Kim CrabApple

Lilli and Shoki at Hunting Island State Park in 2003.

Lilli called out when we pulled in with the horse trailer (horses quickly learn that trailers hold other horses!). Shoki did not call back but when I got out of the truck, his ears were pricked and he was looking eagerly in her direction. When I got Shoki off the trailer Lilli was right there at the fence, waiting to greet him. It was obvious they recognized one another as they stood sniffing noses and nickering softly. They stood like this for a very long time and I envisioned them exchanging stories about everything that had transpired while they were apart. When they were done getting re-acquainted, Shoki simply dropped his head and started grazing. There was no squealing or posturing, no establishing of ranks. So I released Shoki into the paddock with Lilli and they settled right in without missing a beat… just like we do with those sacred friends we can go months or years without seeing and then pick up right where we left off whenever we get back together.

A couple months later Billie passed away. When I said my silent goodbyes, I promised her that Shoki would have a home with me forever, which I know is what she trusted me to do. I’m pretty confident Billie thought she was giving Shoki a gift when she sent him to live with me. But what she really did was give me a gift.

Kim Shoki Lake

Me and Shoki dancing in the water.

Shoki continues to grow more special and dear to my heart with every passing year. It is only because of him that I dedicated my life to becoming a better horsewoman.  He and I have learned and laughed and cried together. We have shared countless adventures and nursed one another through illnesses. He has opened my heart and my mind to the deep inner wisdom and complexity of horses. He has inspired me with his courage and fire and playfulness. He has taught me to dance and to fly and to know what it’s like to feel as one with my horse. Most of all he has taught me what true partnership feels like, and that you can’t find it until you are first willing to let go, trust and have faith in the other.

This elegant Arabian gelding also became the guardian and protector of my evolving herd – a role he was ill-prepared for when I had to make the decision to sell Lilli. In some of my future posts you will learn, through the stories of Puck and Tempo, how Shoki bravely rose to the challenge of becoming a herd leader after he unexpectedly found himself the most qualified for the job.

“Adversity doesn’t develop character as much as it reveals character.”  – Dr. Tony Baron

Wild Shoki

 

Andy

Face Profile

Andy stoically suffered through years of isolation and neglect.

There’s really no way around it: Andy’s story is a tragic one.

Sadly, it’s also not an uncommon one.

I do believe Andy was loved and well cared for during some stages of his life. I say this because he clearly adored people. He was also well trained, with good manners both on the ground and under saddle. He loved loading and riding in trailers. He would practically beg to enter into riding arenas when he passed their entrance gates. And, he seemed to have an aura of self-pride about him that I believe can only come from feeling successful and important. So, I’m thankful to whatever humans (and horses!) gave him these gifts in his younger days.

But, like so many horses, Andy was never lucky enough to find a “forever” home that would love and care for him through all stages of his life.

Andy Day One

This is how Andy looked the day he arrived at my farm in December 2000.

Andy was a tattooed Standardbred, so I’m guessing he probably spent at least some time at the track when he was young. By the time I met him, however, the numbers and letters that had been etched in black ink on the inside of his upper lip were mostly faded out and illegible so I couldn’t look him up in the registries to find out if he had ever raced, or what year he was born. Andy also had no functional teeth remaining when I met him so it was impossible to age him by his teeth (a reliable method used by many vets and equine dentists). My best guess is that Andy was at least in his late twenties when he got dropped off at our farm on Christmas Eve in December 2000. And he was in desperate need of loving care and rehabilitation

Close Up of Hips

Close up of Andy’s spine and hips when he first arrived.

I had been given a brief description of Andy’s condition when I spoke with the foster family who had taken him in for the quarantine period immediately after he was confiscated by Animal Control. But I was still unprepared for the scruffy, dirty, pathetic bag of bones that stepped off the trailer and stood before me that afternoon. Andy was covered in thick, matted hair that looked as if it had not been brushed or shed in a decade. Despite this thick coat, you could still see his entire spine, hip bones, and every one of his ribs protruding. He also had an angry, inflamed rash along his belly where he had been urinating on himself because no one had cleaned or cared for his sheath and it couldn’t function properly.  Andy had already been vet-checked, tested and vaccinated so I knew it was safe for him to interact with Lilli but I also wasn’t prepared for the response he would have to meeting her.

Andy had been found living alone in a small paddock with little food that he could eat (remember, he had no teeth!) and absolutely no companionship. He had apparently been living much that same way for many years (14 to be exact). Supposedly he had once been a child’s show horse but, as often happens with children, when she grew older she lost interest in Andy and began to neglect him. After the girl was grown and had moved out, instead of selling Andy to another home, the parents kept him. Why? We’ll never know. But they clearly did not have the knowledge, ability or desire to care for him. So Andy slowly wasted away over the years, until someone (finally) reported his situation to Animal Control.

Andy & Lilli 1

This is how close Andy stayed to Lilli almost all the time!

Having lived a life of seclusion for so many years, even in his weak and emaciated state, it was obvious Andy was overwhelmed with gratitude when he met Lilli and realized he could actually interact with her! He worshiped the ground she walked on from the moment he saw her. Lilli was sweet and gentle with him, seemingly pleased to have a ward to take care of again. She patiently tolerated his desire to be RIGHT BESIDE her at all times. It was almost as if Andy thought if she got more than a few inches away from him, or if he couldn’t directly breathe in the scent of her, she might disappear and he’d realize it had all been a dream.  This behavior and his need to be physically close to Lilli never faded.

Andy & Lilli 2

Andy was like Lilli’s “love shadow”.

For the next nine months Lilli and I nursed Andy back to health. Because he was so weak (and he also had severe arthritis in his legs), it took almost 3 months before Andy felt strong enough to lie down – and confident enough to know he could get back up. It was amazing to see how his prey animal instincts told him, “if you lie down, you are as good as dead.” So, he just didn’t. The first time I did see him lying down I almost panicked, thinking something must be terribly wrong with him. But Lilli was calmly standing over him, like a guardian angel, as he slept. I can only imagine how glorious a nap that must have been for him!

I quickly discovered that I had to soak Andy’s feed and hay cubes until they were a soggy mush that he could slurp without chewing. Oh how he loved his sloppy meals! He dined three times per day from a big rubber feeder on our back patio where he could nibble up his drippings off the cement. Amazingly, even without teeth Andy DID graze, somehow managing to break off blades of grass with his lips. But then all he could do was gum the blades into big wads of wet sloppy green gunk that he had to spit back out the side of his mouth because they weren’t fit for swallowing/digesting.   Still, the simple ACT of grazing beside Lilli (even though it did nothing to nourish his body), seemed to bring Andy great joy and contentment.

Andy Trot

Andy sporting his new summer coat and feeling good!

When spring came it was glorious to watch as Andy finally shed that thick coat of nasty old hair, revealing a sleek new red summer coat. And as he gained weight, Andy had a lot more energy and loved to frolic (even with a very gimpy, arthritic gait) and play. As I watched him, I would wonder how long it had been since he’d felt good enough physically and mentally to behave that way!

As Andy grew stronger physically, his gregarious personality blossomed as well. I’ve never heard any horse talk as much as Andy did. Anytime my ex-husband or I walked out the front/back door, Andy would start nickering to us. The whole time we were outside he would follow us around (with detours back to Lilli’s side to take a quick sniff of her fur before coming back to continue his monologue with us). We were endlessly entertained by his adorable antics and always joked about how Andy was spouting long, animated sentences that we would never understand!

Andy Run

Andy’s coat darkened up again as Fall approached.

The first time I tried to take Lilli out for a ride off our property (and away from Andy), he pitched such a fit that I worried he would injure himself! So, after that I started “ponying” Andy along behind her, with a lead rope attached to his halter. Oh how he loved to go on those adventures with us! By August Andy was strong and robust again, although the heat and humidity were hard on him and caused him to pant heavily. My vet explained that extended undernourishment takes its tole on internal organs, including the heart and lungs. So we did our best to pamper Andy through the summer.

That September I decided it was finally time to put a saddle on Andy and take him out for a ride himself! Despite his arthritis, Andy was sound at the walk and LOVED to go. What fun he and I had walking (and even prancing some!) up and down the road. Andy seemed SO proud to be carrying a rider again and his joy was contagious! We enjoyed several more rides together that month, creating memories I will always cherish.

But September 24, 2001 is where Andy’s story ends. He and Lilli were peacefully standing, side-by-side as they so often did, under a tall tree in our front pasture when a severe storm rolled in. Even before the rain started to fall, a lone lightning bolt came crashing down from the sky, making a direct hit on the tree the horse were standing under. The bolt of electricity passed through the tree, into the ground, and then immediately back up through the horses’ legs, straight to their hearts. Both horses were thrown to the ground. Somehow, Lilli survived and managed to get back up. Andy did not. My vet later said his heart was just too weak to withstand that level of electric shock. It sent him into cardiac arrest.

Final Pic

This final photo was taken just two days before Andy died.

We were all devastated to lose Andy so suddenly, especially after we’d put so much effort into bringing him back to health. But I am thankful that his passing was swift, and my vet assured me he did not suffer. Andy’s final moments were spent doing what he loved most – hanging out with “his” Lilli-bell.

I’ll always be thankful for the nine months we had with Andy, and the joy he brought to our lives. The enthusiasm with which he embraced each day of life, even after enduring unspeakable hardships and isolation for so long, serves as a reminder to me to be thankful, always. And hopeful. But most of all, Andy’s deep and unabashed love for the companions (both equine and human) that he got to spend the last nine months of his life with tell me this is what we should remember as his legacy:

“The best thing to hold onto in life is each other.” -Audrey Hepburn

 

Lillith

Lilli Glamour Shot

Lilli at my farm in 2001

I’ve loved horses all my life, but it wasn’t until my 30th birthday that I finally got one I could call my very own. Her name was Lillith (aka Lilli). She was bay in color with no white markings. I was told she was an appendix (quarter horse/thoroughbred cross) but I know nothing of her breeding because she had no papers. Lillith had fairly poor conformation and was not exceptionally athletic.  But whatever she lacked in bloodlines, Lilli more than made up for it in character and leadership skills.

I first met Lilli when I started volunteering at a local barn after my ex-husband and I moved to Harstville, SC in 1998. I had been involved in a serious riding accident in college seven years earlier that resulted in a broken neck, a bruised body and a largely shattered sense of confidence as a rider. Although my physical recovery from the accident was long and challenging, I was lucky enough to emerge with no lasting physical limitations. Once healed, I found myself feeling very eager to get back to spending time at the barn, and even to start riding again. It soon became clear, however, that my confidence in the saddle had waned and I was struggling with a level of fear I had never experienced prior to the accident. I did my best to “push through” these fears and for a few years I took lessons to improve my riding in hopes of feeling safer, but I never got to a point where I could really relax and enjoy myself the way I had in the past.

Most of the horses at the barn in Hartsville were high-strung Arabians. I’ve always loved Arabians, but given my underlying fear issues, they weren’t really the best match for me as a rider at that time. Lilli, on the other hand, was incredibly laid back (some preferred to call her lazy!) and cool as a cucumber. I often longed to switch horses when she and her owner would join us on trail rides! So, you can imagine my excitement when one day Lilli’s owner asked me if I would start riding her to keep her exercised.

From my very first time sitting on Lilli’s back, we had a special connection. Being on her  felt like “coming home” to me! Lilli had this magical ability to transfer her calm, centered confidence to me through the saddle and reins. Before long we were taking long trail rides together and cantering through the fields. For the first time since before the accident, I even felt safe going out riding by myself. When Lilli’s owner announced in 2000 that she was putting the horse up for sale shortly before my 30th birthday, I knew it was meant to be.

When we purchased Lilli, I knew a lot about riding but not too much about horse care. I knew the basics that you learn in any riding program or summer camp, like how to “properly” groom and bathe a horse, how to pick their hooves and wrap their legs for trailering. I knew how to saddle and bridle them for riding, and how to watch for signs of lameness or colic. My friend and mentor who owned the stable where Lilli was boarded also taught me how to hook up a horse trailer and safely haul horses to and from shows. But that was the extent of my “preparation” for becoming the custodian of a precious equine life.

Most markedly, I knew almost nothing about how horses actually live in the wild, including their rich social lives and herd structures. My understanding of barn or herd management was limited to snippets I’d heard about how some horses “get along better than others”. I’d also seen for myself how some horses were very “herd bound” because they freaked out if they got separated from their buddies. But Lilli had never had any trouble getting along with the other horses at this barn, and she obviously didn’t mind going out on her own, so I viewed these challenges as “other peoples’ problems”… and paid them little mind.

A few months after we bought Lilli, my ex-husband and I decided to move to Charleston, which was about 2 hours away. The prospect of having Lilli right there “in my backyard” was thrilling! And, as luck would have it, we eventually found a perfect property that included an already fenced pasture for Lilli. There was no barn, but there was a covered run-in shed where Lilli would be able to get out of the rain. We signed the lease, borrowed a trailer and finally brought Lilli “home” to Charleston on Dec. 19, 2000.

From that day forward Lilli became my first Equine Sage, teaching me the basics of what horses need to be happy and healthy in life. I didn’t know it then, but she was also the first in a long line of horses who, together, have been teaching me what humans need to be happy and healthy in life as well!

The first big lesson came when Lilli reacted horribly in response to being removed from her “herd” family in Hartsville and suddenly plopped down in an unfamiliar paddock all by herself, completely isolated from other horses except for a few that lived at a neighboring farm. She could see and hear these horses in the distance but they were not close enough to provide her any real comfort. Within a couple of days (during which Lilli paced constantly, mostly failed to eat, drank very little and called obsessively to the horses in the distance), I realized I had made a dreadful mistake assuming she could easily transition to living alone on our new farm. My calm, centered, easy-going mare had turned into a complete basket case because I was forcing her to live in direct opposition to every survival instinct she had.

Realizing I needed to come up with a Plan B quickly before Lilli made herself sick, I agreed to serve as the foster home for an old horse named Andy who needed to be rehabilitated after years of severe neglect. I’ll share more details about Andy’s story in my next blog post but for now I’ll just say that while it was not love at first sight for Lilli, it most certainly was for Andy!  And, to my great relief, Lilli was at least willing to accept Andy as her new living companion, a choice she clearly preferred over living alone. Looking back on this situation now I can’t help but think of the famous Stills song lyric, “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with”. And so she did.

Lilli Glamour Shot-2

Me and Lilli at the beach in the winter of 2000.

Over the next five years Lilli provided me, through her constant example, a picture of what effective leadership looks and feels like. Lilli was already 12 years old when I met her in Hartsville. I have no way to know what the first decade of her life was like but given the elite leadership skills she exhibited throughout her time with me, I am willing to bet she was born into, and raised early on by, a healthy herd community. I imagine she had other youngsters to play with and older herd mates who disciplined and mentored her. Fairly likely, her own mother was the lead mare in their herd when Lilli was young.  And, she must have had good humans in her life as well. The reason I believe these things is because not only was she friendly, confident and well mannered with humans, every horse Lilli came in contact with during the five years I owned her (whether it was out on trail rides, visiting friends’ farms, camping with my saddle club or introducing new horses to my own evolving herd), immediately recognized her superior leadership skills and wanted to follow her.

I never once saw Lilli take the submissive role with any other horse she met. And most of the time, it was simply her confident, elegant presence and grace (not any visible dominant behavior or attitude) that solidified her authoritative leadership position. I specifically recall one mind-blowing scenario that played out in 2004. Lilli was in our pasture with her then-pasture-mate, Shoki (my Arabian gelding whose heartwarming story you will hear after Andy’s!). A friend was visiting with her own gelding, a horse that Lilli had socialized with previously but that had never met Shoki. My friend and I naively decided to turn her gelding out in the pasture with both Lilli and Shoki when we were headed inside for lunch.

As soon as we did this, the two geldings trotted over to greet one another, exchanged scents and then suddenly swung around and started violently kicking one another and squealing. This was not play; it was a serious effort to establish territory (and/or perhaps a fight over Lilli!). Horrified, my friend and I were about to go running in to try and break them up when Lilli simply walked a few steps toward them and, like magic, both geldings stopped fighting. Then Shoki went around to one side of Lilli and the other gelding positioned himself on her other side. Lilli hadn’t so much as pinned an ear at either of them yet still succeeded in re-establishing order and peace within seconds. It was one of the most commanding and authoritative displays of pure leadership I’ve ever witnessed in my life.

There was only ONE time I ever saw Lilli behave aggressively toward another horse. This incident occurred when I introduced her to a little foster horse (named Imelda) that had been rescued out of a heartbreaking situation. You will hear more about Imelda’s story later as well, but this little mare had never been properly socialized as a youngster and her lack of social skills was evident – both with humans and other horses. The first time I turned Lilli out in the same pasture with Imelda, the little mare took one look at Lilli, pinned her ears, bared her teeth and started to come toward Lilli aggressively. Without hesitating a moment, Lilli charged directly at Imelda with thundering force. Imelda quickly turned tail and ran away. But Lilli did not stop when Imelda turned away, which also surprised me. Instead, Lilli continued to chase the mare, ultimately pinning her in a corner. For the next few minutes, any time Imelda tried to escape the corner, Lilli would “charge” her again. Once satisfied that Imelda was behaving with adequate submission and obedience, Lilli retreated to the other side of the pasture. From that moment on, Imelda voluntarily kept her distance from Lilli and never challenged her again.

At the time, Lilli’s aggression toward Imelda seemed striking and completely out of character. I distinctly remember telling a friend that Lilli had seemed like a completely different and unknown horse to me in that moment. But, now that I understand how important trust, respect and chain of command are in natural herds, my guess is that Lilli simply knew what was needed in that moment to “offset” or “re-balance” Imelda’s complete lack of recognition of (and respect for) leadership. Lilli had no other herd mates with her in the pasture that day to help discipline or mentor Imelda. It was just the two of them and Lilli instinctively knew what it would take to teach the necessary lesson effectively. Lilli never hurt or bullied Imelda (in fact she never actually even touched her), but she absolutely (and without hesitation) did what was necessary to effectively restore order and balance.

Sadly, financial difficulties in 2005 led me to make the very difficult decision to sell my beloved Lilli.  She went to a wonderful home with a lovely woman who had health limitations.  I’m so thankful for the love this family gave to Lilli and also thankful that Lilli was able to share her gifts as a gentle, trustworthy and careful horse, making this woman’s lifelong dreams come true.  The two of them had one happy year together before Lilli broke her leg in a tragic pasture accident and had to be put down.  I had secretly hoped to one day have the opportunity to buy Lilli back, but alas, this was not meant to be.  I’ve never had the privilege of owning another horse with the advanced leadership skills that Lilli possessed, and I miss her still… every day.  There have been many situations since then when I could have used her partnership and assistance in managing my evolving herd!  Some of my future blog posts will illustrate very clearly how challenging it can be for horses living in herds that lack an effective leader like Lillith.

“Leadership consists not in degrees of technique but in traits of character; it requires moral rather than athletic or intellectual effort, and it imposes on both leader and follower alike the burdens of self-restraint.”  Lewis H. Lapham

 

My Domestic Herd

Over Fence Kiss

Shoki and Puck have been herdmates on my farm for over a decade.

If you read my recent blog series on “Functional Communities” then you have at least some sense of how a natural herd (in the wild) looks and behaves, as well as how these very functional natural communities nurture mostly healthy/happy individuals and develop strong leaders.

But most domestic horses do not have the privilege of living in a natural herd community. And, most importantly, the accepted standards of “good horse care and management” endorsed in today’s equine industry bears little-to-no resemblance to the way horses live in the wild. The reasons for this are many, including (but not limited to):

  1. Humans like to manage the breeding of horses both for “quality” purposes and also to maintain some control over horse populations. Not to mention, stallions (intact males) can be highly emotional, unpredictable and difficult to manage so typically only those humans who breed horses as a business are interested in owning stallions. The rest of us prefer geldings because they are oh-so-much-easier and more pleasant (and safer) to deal with.
  1. People who own high-value sport/show horses typically don’t want to risk the possibility of injury or sometimes even the cosmetic blemishes (bites, kicks, dirt, etc.) that can result from turnout with other horses, especially in larger herds.
  1. Most horse owners can only afford to feed and care for a small number of horses and to maintain relatively small acreage for them to live on.
  1. Owners/managers at boarding barns can more easily manage the care of their clients’ horses (and also charge more money) if the horses live, at least part of the time, in barns/stalls. This is primarily because barns make humans more comfortable (protection from the elements) but also because it’s easier/quicker to “catch” a stalled horse when it’s time to ride than one living out in a pasture with its buddies. And, we all know humans are rushed for time! It’s also simpler to manage the feeding of large numbers of horses if they are housed in barns with separate stalls.
  1. Humans select the horses in our lives based on our personal goals and abilities. For example, riders who compete will typically choose horses based on athletic ability and/or mental soundness. Those who are novice riders usually prefer a “steady-Eddie” that will keep them safe. Some people favor certain breeds or colors or sizes. Many will only own (non-hormonal) geldings while others think mares are a fun challenge because they tend to be more sensitive and opinionated.

Over the years I have learned a lot from observing and interacting with my evolving “unnatural” domestic herd. It’s fascinating (and sometimes also quite disturbing) to see the interplay between their instinctive/social/communal drives and the learned behaviors they develop in order to survive in our human world. Most markedly for me, it has been life-changing to watch when horses with under-developed leadership skills, and/or in herds that lack adequate diversity, are forced to struggle to create and maintain a healthy balance within their herd communities.

Over the next few weeks I will share the stories of the seven different horses who have been members (some permanent and some temporary) of my personal domestic herd over the past 16 years. Through their stories I hope we can all come to understand more about how the communities we choose, build, or are forced to live in… deeply affect our lives. It’s important to note that early in my horse-owning experience I was fairly oblivious (as are many horse owners) to the nuances of herd dynamics, but looking back I can see very clearly how every change I made to the makeup of my herd community caused significant repercussions for all the individuals involved.