by Laura Crum
Joy said something in a comment on my post titled “Gratitude” that got me thinking. I hope I’m not misquoting you terribly, Joy, but it was along the lines of the idea that a horse that you’ve owned awhile will inevitably begin to reflect your own issues, and thus give you an opportunity to work on them. This thought interested me a lot, and I began mulling it over in regards to my horse, Sunny.
I’ve written a lot about Sunny on this blog, and in my latest book, “Going, Gone”, so many of you probably have an idea what this horse is like. But, to summarize, I bought Sunny a little over two years ago because he is a very reliable trail horse, and I wanted such a horse to give my young son a steady lead on the trails. I did not think of Sunny as a horse I was buying for myself when I bought him. I thought of him as a family horse, one my husband, and perhaps my son, could eventually ride.
Well, my husband obliged me by riding the horse twice, and then pointed out to me that he had never wanted a horse and preferred to walk. I, on the other hand, began using Sunny regularly, as my little boy and I were both very interested in trail riding, and Sunny was far better for this than my usual riding horse, Plumber. And virtually the first thing Sunny did was pick a fight with me.
I order to understand this in context, you need to know that I had known Sunny, in a roundabout way, for two or three years. I “knew” him as a gentle, bombproof horse that anyone could ride, and who had been reliable on a lot of trail rides. But I hadn’t been around him that much. Imagine my surprise when the “gentle” horse turned his butt to me when I went to catch him and popped his back feet in my direction, threatening to kick me. He didn’t get anywhere near me, you understand, but the gesture was plain.
OK. I beat his little butt up and caught him and that night I called the previous owner and said that I would have to return the horse if he kicked (we had an agreement that I could return the horse any time within the first thirty days). I told her that I was buying him as a gentle family horse and that kicking was not OK. No horse that I have would ever theaten to kick me. I was concerned for my son’s safety…etc.
We had a long discussion about Sunny’s kicking behavior. The upshot of it was that Sunny had never once hurt anyone. He did offer this behavior from time to time, usually with a new rider, and he had only connected once, and never left even a mark that time. Based on this info, I kept Sunny and decided I could deal with his little issue.
This issue turned out to be much more “global” than occasionally threatening to kick. Sunny would also threaten to bite while being cinched, attempt to step on your foot when being saddled, move into your space on the leadline, and balk and crowhop in an attempt to thwart his rider while being ridden. In none of these gestures was Sunny particularly serious—he was just testing. In essence, he was picking a fight to see who would be boss.
At this point you may be wondering what in the world I saw in the horse, and the answer is that I sometimes wondered myself. Sunny was also somewhat rough gaited and not terribly well-broke. But he was a great trail horse. His little “pissant” attitude translated into a calm, cold-blooded, level-headed confidence on the trail. He wasn’t bothered by much of anything. He’d seen it all—from wild animals, to traffic, to mud, to surf, to switchbacks and sidehills, and none of it bothered him. He was a willing trail horse for the most part, able to tackle anything; he gave my son’s horse an absolutely steady lead, and he allowed me to relax and keep my attention on my kid. Such horses are not easy to find. Thus I put up with his quirks, though to begin with I bemoaned them.
Why, I would ask, does this stupid little horse have to keep trying this crap? Because he did keep trying it. No matter how often I kicked his butt—and I always won, Sunny was really no challenge for any halfway experienced horseman—Sunny persistantly tried his dominance games again and again. He seemed to like being defeated. At first I found it annoying. After awhile I got curious.
My curiousity really got piqued when I (briefly) turned Sunny in with my son’s horse, Henry. Sunny’s owner had reported that she kept Sunny turned in with other horses and he was always “low man”. And, at first, it seemed to work out fine. Henry was easily dominant—end of story.
Except that Sunny wouldn’t let it be. Every day or so, he’d mount a sneak attack on Henry and try to kick him or bite him when Henry wasn’t paying attention. Henry, rightfully aggrieved at such insubordinate behavior, would lambast Sunny, and Sunny would retreat, defeated. But he always tried it again. I got tired of all the bite and kick marks on Sunny’s shiny gold hide and I worried he would get hurt. So I kept the horses separate after that. But the message was plain. This was Sunny’s behavior pattern with horses and people.
I began to wonder what it meant, what Sunny really wanted. The horse was always very interested in me; he followed me around the barnyard far more than the other horses did. He nickered when he saw me. He gave every sign of enjoying our new partnership. And he continued his dominance games. For the first time it struck me that Sunny wanted me to “beat him up”, that he was happier after I did this, that it made him feel secure. He picked fights on purpose so that I could continually reestablish my alpha horse position—just as he had with Henry.
I tested this theory once in awhile. Some days I’d get Sunny out and feel him crowd me just a tad as I led him through the gate, and even though he hadn’t done much of anything, I’d work him over a little with the leadrope and back him off the top of me. Sunny would make submissive mouthing motions and be good the rest of the day. I had satisfied his need.
Well, this was Ok as far as it went—I somewhat understood my horse, but it still left me just a tad bit aggrieved. I wasn’t sure I wanted a horse I had to beat up all the time. However, Sunny did what I needed him to do, and I became more and more fond of him, and just accepted my role. And Sunny’s dominance testing became more and more minor and token—very symbolic—he no longer offered to kick or bite, he allowed me to worm him without much fuss (compared to twenty minutes of sillieness when I first got him)..etc. All was well. And then I read Joy’s comment, and a whole new idea hit me.
I can be a fairly confrontational person. I don’t hang out with other people a lot, and when I do, I try to be very respectful of their space and their right to their own ideas. But God forbid anyone should not be respectful of me and my space. I am nobody’s yes man or doormat. The minute I feel I’m being condecended to, or manipulated, or in any way infringed on, or when I see someone trying this sort of thing on an animal or a kid, the you know what really hits the fan. Because I am not likely to be subtle in my response. I will either walk away and be done with that person or situation, or I will let them know, very directly, how I feel about said situation. As Mrs Mom said to me once, I’m a “shoot from the hip” type of person. I thought it was a very accurate comment. And after reading Joy’s comment, I wonder if Sunny didn’t come to me as a way to work on this part of my personality.
Sunny seems to need me to confront him and set boundries. As fond as I am of him, I am still required to set him straight on a regular basis. Maybe I should regard this as an opportunity rather than a burden? This is kind of a new thought for me, but it does resonate. So I thought I’d ask you all—have you experienced this sort of thing with your horses? Do you feel that you somehow get the "horse you need" rather than exactly the horse you want? What’s your take on it?