by Kit Ehrman
As we deal with our horses, both as caretakers and trainers, I think it’s important that we not lose sight of equine emotions. They may run deeper than we suspect. A case in point:
Many years ago, when my boys were small, my good friend and neighbor asked if I would like to borrow her elderly, medium-sized pony so that my children would have the opportunity to ride something more size appropriate than being led around on my old, rather overweight gelding. I agreed, and soon Star, a chestnut mare with a coarse head, joined my barn.
Star settled in, but looking back, I believe she was never truly happy with the forced change. She could see and smell and hear her old home where she had once been the matriarch. On my farm, she had my six-year-old, rambunctious, Thoroughbred mare to contend with. Although Flare was mostly well behaved, every now and then, she tried to play with her new pasturemate. At age thirty, Star was in no mood for shenanigans of any sorts. She wanted to eat and rest and be left in peace. She did, however, bond quite nicely with my boarder, a sixteen-year-old large pony.
Admittedly, Star was a bit of a grouch. As I considered her, I didn’t think she was pining for home, but she never seemed truly happy, either. Was this her innate personality or was she missing home? I couldn’t tell.
Three years passed. As with all my horses, Star enjoyed a roomy, immaculately-cleaned stall; daily turnout in a lush pasture; supplemental hay and grain; excellent veterinary and farrier care; candy and treats; fly spray and baths when it was hot; a blanket when it was cold; and a strict routine she could rely on. She had companionship and did very little work. As it turned out, she was not a willing tutor for my boys, but that was okay. They preferred bumping their go-carts across the fields and daredevil races down the lane.
Then, when Star was thirty-three, my pony boarder and Star’s buddy left the barn. Star missed her; that much was clear, and as the days passed, she seemed more and more depressed. The only companion that she’d had on my farm was gone.
I noticed Star looking across the pasture toward her old home more and more. I called Star’s owner and told her that she seemed unhappy and I thought she wanted to come home. A couple weeks passed. I can’t remember, now, what the holdup had been. Maybe my neighbor didn’t have an open stall, or maybe she simply didn’t think the situation was urgent. In any case, Star went downhill quickly. She seemed distressed. I made another call, and my neighbor didn’t delay this time in taking her home.
The next day, my friend called and told me Star had died that night. The old mare had lifted her head and pranced down “her” barn aisle, whinnying, and no one who saw her could have mistaken her joy at returning home.
We are both convinced that she wanted to go home to die.
When it comes to your horse’s emotions, be observant and trust your instincts. I should have reacted faster, and I’m sure if Star could have talked, we would have never moved her from home.
I agree, Kit. Horses do have strong feelings, and we sometimes fail to "get" them. I, too, have seen them show long term, steadfast devotion to places, other horses, and people. I have also been privledged to see how much happier some of my horses look now than they did when I bought them. I'm pretty sure that most of mine prefer their current home to the one they came from. I did have one gelding that seemed to pine for months when I turned him out in my pasture, so I brought him home and put him in a corral, where he appeared quite happy again. Its hard to figure them out, sometimes (!)
Oh, that's hard to read. My son's wonderful pony just went to a friend's place on a free lease. We talked to Polly (who is truly the best pony in the world) about how to show us and her new rider if she is not happy and wants to come home. She seems to be content so far, but we'll certainly check on her frequently. Polly turned my son into a wonderful riding buddy, and she needs the continued exercise of regular riding. I strongly believe that horses are happy in some settings and miserable in others, while both places may look fine to us as caretakers. Thanks for the good reminder, to stay on top of it.
Moving story. Brought tears.
Made me think about my eleven year old gelding. He has been here for nearly 5 years now. When he came to me, he was 6 and had lived at the same farm for the previous 4 years.
He was very aloof in those days. Very gruff. Didn't want us hanging on him much. I have noticed in the past year he has come out of his shell. He now allows me to hang on his neck. Rub down his face. Kiss his cheek. Things he seemed to be annoyed with in the beginning. Now, he seems to enjoy the closeness and the attention. I'm positive he missed his old home in the beginning.
After reading your post, I thought, yeah, his whole world had been turned upside down by moving out here, miles from his home. We have a much smaller pasture area for one thing. I definitely had to earn his trust before he gave his heart again. My younger guy was really too young, at two, to know the difference. He basically grew up here. I don't think the move affected him quite as much.
Star had a good life her last years and you were wise enough to see that she needed something more toward the end.
Wonderful story, Kit. So glad Star made it home before she died.
Thank you all for commenting. I must admit, I still feel sad when I think of Star, but I am happy she made it home, Leslie. It sounds like you've had wonderful success with your eleven-year-old gelding. I'll bet he wasn't used to much loving, either. It's touching that he has come around and can appreciate and enjoy the bond he has with you.
Anonymous, after giving Polly some time, I'm sure you'll know whether the new home works for her or not. And don't forget, not only is the exercise important for her, most horses want to be involved in some sort of activity.
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