Keeping the connection

I have always spent a lot of time with my horses. For me, having horses was never about riding or doing things with them. I love riding, and I can’t think of a better way to spend Sunday mornings than to go out on a trusted horse and enjoy the countryside, but it is not why I have horses. I have owned horses in the past that I couldn’t ride at all and I imagine that when I get to that point in my life where I am physically unable to ride anymore, I would still have horses. I love their presence and just being with them, sharing their space,  enjoying their company and watching them go about the daily business of being a horse, that has always been a very important part of having them. Sharing space and time builds trust and it allows a relationship to develop naturally. 

You can’t, however, take relationships for granted. Friendship needs to be maintained. You can’t withdraw from a relationship and expect things to stay the same.

My long working hours mean that I have little time and even less energy. I haven’t been able to spend as much time with Minnie and Cassie as I used to, but I have also made less of an effort. It is so easy to let weariness take over. Wrapping up warm late at night to sit with my horses for a while before going to bed suddenly seemed like hard work. Much easier to collapse into bed with a book and then fall asleep with the book dropping on the floor and the light still on. Easier, but it didn’t help. It didn’t give me more energy, or even make me feel less tired. And my absence was affecting my horses, although it took me a while before I realised it.

What I noticed first was that the dynamic between Minnie and Cassie was changing. The balance between them seemed disturbed and Cassie began displaying aggressive behaviour towards Minnie.  She would lunge at Minnie at feeding time and chase her off, using a huge amount of energy that sent Minnie flying around the yard. And for the first time, Minnie’s hind quarters are decorated with bite marks.  

Minnie began following me around, even leaving her hay behind to do so. Sometimes she would nudge my arm or shoulder. At first I thought she was looking for protection, but when I spent more time with her that was not the feeling I got from her at all. She looked confident and self-assured, in fact she looked like a mare on a mission. And whenever I arrived, instead of Cassie it would be Minnie waiting at the gate, looking alert and watching me intently.

It put Cassie’s behaviour in a different light. Minnie, who is quite vocal and extroverted, was demanding attention, and she was getting it. But Cassie is the opposite, she is introverted and now I finally noticed that she looked remote, as if she had pulled back into herself. I felt awful.

I always thought finding the connection was best done on the ground, but yesterday it happened during a ride. Maìre came over with Ben and Rosie for one of our Sunday rides.  I had spent more time than usual getting Cassie ready, grooming her slowly and quietly before Maìre arrived, but I still felt almost guilty when I tacked her up, because I wasn’t sure if it was the right thing to do.

On our way down the hill, Cassie walked behind me. The first part of the ride was difficult, Cassie’s focus was wandering and she kept swivelling her head left and right, looking for hidden danger and reasons to spook. She paid no attention to my seat and legs at all. Until I started to concentrate on her. I stroked her neck and then I rode on with the reins in one hand. I let my other hand rest on her withers. Finally, her ear flicked back at me and she settled into a steady walk. Her energy came up, I relaxed and began to enjoy being out on a beautiful blustery morning and I felt Cassie respond. During the remainder of the ride, the barrier between us gradually dissolved and I felt connected again. When Ben, who was full of the joys of Spring, decided to canter up the hill, Cassie stayed with me with just a slight shift of my weight.

I got off to walk the last stretch home beside her and Cassie walked with her head at my shoulder, turning to look at me every few paces, as if to check that I was still there. 

This evening, when I went out to see them and give them their last bit of hay before going to bed, Cassie walked up to me. For the first time in weeks, she lowered her head to me and  I rubbed her under her fore-lock. I put the hay out and sat down on my rock. Cassie stood beside me, munching her hay and nuzzling my face and dropping hay all over my hair. Minnie stood on the other side and it was good to be there. Strange how in times of stress those you love most suffer first.


8 thoughts on “Keeping the connection

  1. It’s so interesting to watch how the dynamic changes. I went through this recently as well and am working on the connection with them again. Sometimes work just gets the best of us and it is a bummer! But I love how forgiving of it they are. It is really humbling to me that they always invite me back. Usually, when I go back, I have a fresh mind and something in our training that we may have struggled with, all of a sudden is no problem.

    • Yes, horses are incredibly forgiving and I take comfort from that. It won’t be long now before we have long evenings and that will make life a bit easier. I look forward to the extra time it will give me.

  2. Interesting. It’s the same with children, isn’t it? Some kids are able to directly ask for the attention they need, and with others you have to deduce their need for attention from their behaviour.

      • It’s funny – my 21 year old daughter recently hit upon a mature, adult way to request attention. She tugs on my clothes and says, “Pay attention to ME.” It’s very endearing.

  3. Just, amen. I’m in a drama right now that has me distracted and heavy-minded, and though I work hard to set it aside when I’m with the horses, they know me and so feel my efforts. It’s a wall between us that I hope will vanish quickly.

    And yes, for me it’s the horse first and forever, and then all the wonderful things that can come out of that. Just standing near is enough for me.

  4. I have been thinking a lot about these very same things lately. It seems that in my life, I go from extremes–from being able to spend a lot of time with the horses to barely being able to throw hay during the school year (and, as you mentioned, it’s not much fun to be outside in the winter).

    My job when I’m with them is to always remember they don’t much care for the truckload of human concerns I’m always burdened with–they don’t care if I have papers to grade or if I’m worried about how to pay for new tires. They’re just glad to see ME. That’s something that never fails to lift my spirits.

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