A few days ago I was gifted with something brand new to me, a magic time that lasted about 25 minutes and was so enlightening.
Here’s what happened.
I live in Saginaw to help my husband, Joe. Three weeks ago he fell on the thick ice that blankets much of Michigan and fractured 4 ribs. His recovery is going slowly but well, and I stay in the Saginaw Bay area to help him manage. So I couldn’t continue to ride in Traverse City. Never mind: we found Sunshine Farms, just outside Bay City, only about 10 miles away from our Saginaw farmhouse, where at least 25 horses live as boarders, or are owned by their owners, Robin Bellor, and Nancy-Smith Bellor, Robin’s daughter.
This winter the weather has been so incredibly cold that the animals often can’t be let out, because their big field is a sheet of ice. To slip and fall would likely mean disaster. So the horses stay inside, exercising with their riders in the arena, their minds kept busy with schooling for the hunter/jumper competitions all over the state that begin in spring.
One morning last week I showed up there to ride, garbed in my electric socks, gloves and jacket, my mood at once elevated and apprehensive. -1- degree temps make everyone cross and frustrated.
But today Robin told me I needed to wait a bit; it was playtime. “Living here, being ridden, fed, housed and loved isn’t enough.
Horses need to be free to be horses.”
What? I was puzzled. A little smile crossed her face as she bade me stand behind the mounting block.
She came back into the arena with my mount, Blake, who stood patiently while Robin disconnected his lead rope and then stepped away. Blake abruptly wheeled, broke into a trot and moved silkily around the large space, exploring the set up jumps, following the erratic flights of the barn sparrows, and generally reveling in his freedom.
Suddenly he broke into a gallop and dashed around the entire arena, flinging his head up and down. Then, after stopping abruptly, down he went on his back to roll and roll, back and forth, groaning with enjoyment. Blake is a tall thoroughbred, and to see him upside down, his blanket flapping, his hooves flashing toward the roof as he rocked from side to side, was a gasper! Finally, he righted himself, shook vigorously and whinnied loudly, looking around. He needed a playmate.
And, exactly then, Robin led in a smaller gelding, Ditto, and released him as well. The two rushed to greet each other, and then Ditto dropped, too, and rolled in the deep, soft sawdust with the same enjoyment, his blanket flapping just as enthusiastically. Blake stood very near, watching his antics with great interest. Ditto rose, shook himself, bumped noses with Blake and the two rocketed off, whinnying and rolling their eyes. Blake roared around a turn, and without a thought, effortlessly jumped a fence. Such light-as-air, amazing grace! The two horses charged on as a pair, switching from chaser to chased by some mysterious agreement. Their whinnies were excited and happy as they cut corners and revved up to ‘high gear.’
And then, Robin showed up with a third horse, Magoo, and they trotted over to greet him. Magoo immediately lowered himself to the ground and rolled luxuriously. His blanket didn’t seem to mind being saturated in sawdust. The other two stood close, watching, until he finished, righted himself and shook off the dust. Time to join the fun!
(These three had enjoyed each other’s company for years. She would never set loose a horse that wasn’t in their social group. That would be dangerous to the unlucky horse.)
Blake moved so beautifully; it was as though his tall, slim 1300-pound body weighed next to nothing. His prancing, wheeling turns were delicate, airy, incredibly graceful and full of mischief. Whinnies expressed delight as the three animals mixed it up. The two smaller horses ran in tandem, or pretended to rush Blake, who stood his ground until the last second before moving to the side and barreling off. It was enchanting! I’d never seen horses play!
Robin and I retreated to the wood-stove warmed tack room, which has a huge window.
“I do this every day in severe winters, with various horses, and never get tired of watching how happy it makes them. But when such big animals let go and play hard, hooves flash, and pseudo-kicks are incredibly quick. A careless observer could easily be seriously, unintentionally hurt. So you stay in here. I’m going out there to supervise, and be a physical reminder for them to keep their boisterous behavior within bounds.”
Out she went, and the horses whinnied hellos as they rushed around, but they kept their steel hooves a respectful distance away. They love Robin.
Just for fun, she came back into the tack room a few minutes later, grinning. “Watch what happens now...”
The horses looked around, to make sure she’d gone before sidling to one corner where the really lush bales of special hay were stored. They furtively snatched fat morsels to munch. We laughed so hard! Robin mischievously rattled the tack room door as though she were coming out again; the noise triggered the guilty trio’s dash away from the forbidden corner. They decided she hadn’t noticed their theft.
Never mind that the evidence of their sin dangled from their mouths in large hay-hunks...
They trotted to a far corner and turned their backs on the tack room to finish eating what they’d sneaked away, and then raced around the arena in different directions, maximally extending their necks and showing their teeth, daring another to stand his ground. It was rather like a game of chicken!
Robin called to the more enthusiastic Ditto to take care, and three pairs of ears turned toward her. They were certainly listening.
About 25 minutes later the trio stood close together, steam rising from their noses, looking relaxed and sated. They were done. Robin stepped forward to catch Blake, who was fine with being led away to be saddled. Magoo and Ditto were collected by staff a few minutes later and settled into their own stalls.
Confinement during icy, sub-zero winters isn’t so hard on the horses when these regular playtimes allow them to stretch out a bit and simply be themselves.
Once again, yet another dimension has been added to my understanding of these beautiful creatures.