I’ve been spending some time working with my mare, whom I shall call the Divine Miss M.
She’s 20 and a rough-kept chestnut Arabian. She has scars and injuries. She was a beach horse, which sounds wonderful until you spend a few hours watching beach horses, as I did a few weeks ago, and you realize how head-blind they are. They have shut down, physically and mentally, to cope with the incoherent riding they endure on a daily basis. The person who kicks them to go, then hangs on to their mouth, rather than their mane or the saddle.
Every novice rider does this of course, but if you have half-way competent instruction, you’re told what you’re doing and if you have any conscience at all, you remind yourself each time you’re doing it, so that you soon find yourself reaching for a handful of mane, or, better yet, your saddle.
Of course, if this is your own horse, and you have a relationship with the animal, that ameliorates the incoherence of your riding, especially if your horse has experience with novice riders. And if the horse is a real school horse, it will get days off, days when it is ridden with by a human who actually knows what they’re doing.
Beach horses typically don’t get this. So they shut down, physically, emotionally, and intellectually. Incoherent riding is their life, along with a regimentation that allows no scope for the equine intellect or instincts. They become head-blind as a matter of survival. Tuning out the world, and their own response to discomfort and incoherence, is their life.
I’ve been working with Miss M for about a year and a half now. A novice rider myself, I’m just starting to ride her with any kind of coherence. We go back and forth, from her being barely able to walk, to being close to having three good gaits, because I’ve fixed some problems, to her switching leads every few strides behind because now that I’ve fixed problems in her shoulders, she can feel her quarters hurting her. (She injured her right hip rather badly.)
I refused to have her vetted before I acquired her because her mind was so good, I didn’t want to hear how screwed up her body was. But we have some very similar injuries, so it’s not like I didn’t have a good sense of how compromised she is. So we proceed with me slowly asking her for flexion. My goal is to make her stronger and more supple so she has a good late life.
Lately, though, I’ve become intrigued by her pasture mate, whom I will call Miss E. I have always liked Miss E. (Everyone who handles this mare likes her.) She’s a very personable mare whose owner, a college student, has no time for her. But she also does not want her horse ridden or handled by other people.
Since I will have less time in the next few months than I have had I the past for the divine Miss M, I’ve asked for her to go into the school program, so that there will be people to feed her treats, groom her and otherwise love on her on days that I can’t get there. Miss E’s owner has no such desire for her. This means that if Miss E’s owner does not ride, groom, or slip Miss E treats, no one does. (Well, I do slip her treats every time I come see Miss M) If Miss E’s owner doesn’t kiss or stroke her, no one does. Not because the rest of us are brutal, but because we all have horses we love. I certainly do.
But nevertheless, each time I visit Miss M, I find my distress over Miss E rising. The truth is, Miss E was Miss M a year and a half ago.
But for that past year and a half, Miss M has been loved and worked with, and Miss E has gone further down the road to death.
These are their pictures.
They are both Arab mares (although Miss E is clearly more correct than Miss M), both about 20, and both get virtually identical diets. Horses do not do well without their own personal humans, but Arabians, the ancient, civilized breed, the fountainhead of all riding horses, the prize mares and stallions of which were no strangers to the tents of their masters, tend to be destroyed by lack of regular human contact. The difference is that the chestnut mare (Miss M) gets lots more attention, including being ridden far more often and harder than the bay mare (Miss E).
Hard to see that every time I go out to see Miss M, who calls to me, Miss E comes up, hoping for a carrot and a caress—all of which I give her—and not much more. Which I can’t give her. Can’t lunge her or start riding her, very lightly, to redevelop her muscles and her mind. (The first time I offered Miss E carrots, it took her a few moments to accept them, as if she’d forgotten what they were.)
I believe Miss M knows that when I got her, she was dying, and as uncomfortable as my turning her face towards life has sometimes been, she also understands that I have turned her back to life. And I believe Miss E knows she has, in a fundamental way has been abandoned to death because no one has time for her. For we are not speaking of neglect in the classic sense, since she’s fed and sheltered, her hooves and teeth are done, and she’s wormed and vetted, much less abuse. We are speaking of a lack of purpose and discipline, as much as a lack of kisses and treats. We are speaking of a lack of someone with a whip saying, you can trot, therefore you must. You can canter, therefore you must. We’ll worry about form, stamina, all the rest later. But first we must get your blood going, teach you to remember the pleasure of movement. (A horse should always respect the whip, never fear it. When I was resensitizing Miss M, I would often slide the whip between my calf and her flank to reinforce my leg aids, since my body control is not good enough for me to wear spurs.)
We are speaking of the lack of someone to take her outside her comfort zone, and thus, with each passing day, she becomes weaker, her comfort zone smaller.
Poor Miss M. Poor, poor Miss E.
You don’t get back lost time. For Miss M, I was able to slow the flow. No one is willing to do that for Miss E.
Every time I see her, I think, she knows what Miss M is going through, what is being done for her, and she is dying long before her time for lack of anyone to care about her enough to do the same for her.