I love to study the minds of these beautiful creatures, to begin to figure out how they think and respond to the world, and especially to humans. I’ll never master their complicated language and code of behavior, but every journey begins with the first step. I’ve started down that road, now, happy to begin this last great adventure.
Here’s the latest fascinating observation:
I brought an apple for Chella, a gorgeous jet-black Friesian gelding who has recently come to Casalae Farms. (Friesians are really huge horses, always deep black, with feathered hooves and thick, incredibly long manes and tails.) When I entered his stall for the first time to clean it I offered my hands, containing two cinnamon horse treats, and then the rake and empty bucket for him to sniff.
He met me at his stall door the next day, hoping for another treat. This time, half a huge apple served in three manageable bites started his day well, I think. I made Chella’s stall fresh and tidy and he moved over almost soundlessly when asked, while looking me over, his perfect ears straight up, indicating interest.
He is a gentle giant, and so quiet.
New horses must be sorted into the correct pecking order. Chella was initially shunned by the other geldings, and so was settled into a separate paddock to enjoy the sun’s weak warmth. The next day the staff decided to introduce him to Bud, a gentle, beautiful white Arabian gelding who is easy to handle, and very kind. The two sniffed each other, separated by a fence just to make sure no problems would rear up. When nothing bad happened they were united. It’s working well. The two graze quietly and companionably on hay laid out in their paddock’s center.
After chores I went outside with a fat apple, and called to Chella. Bud looked my way, too, and, much closer, he walked over to me, curious.
What’s up, Boss? he inquired, ears pointed straight at me, nose nudging my hand. Bud kept looking behind him, knowing I’d come for Chella. But, no. Black Beauty was shy, preferring to watch us from a good distance away to see what might unfold. He didn’t want to ‘horn in.’
I bit off a good-sized bite of apple and extended my arm and palm between the fence slats, happy to switch my focus to Bud. (Every horse always gets my full attention.)
“Hey, there. We haven’t met formally yet. Here’s a treat...”
(Just before this meeting I’d popped back into the barn to check with Karen, the Farm’s owner and Boss, that I could do this. (Chris, Bud’s owner, wasn’t there yet.) I ALWAYS ask before feeding a horse I haven’t officially met, as some animals have special needs. Karen grinned, though, and declared he’d be happy to receive the gift.)
Now comes the fascinating part.
Instead of taking it, Bud stared at it, then me, and wheeled around to trot to the other end of the big paddock! I was truly surprised, but didn’t move. Noting this, he finally decided to trot back to me, but stopped just short of taking the prize. Even stretching his neck, he wouldn’t be able to reach my gift-bearing hand. Why was he so reticent?
He stood there, legs firmly planted, head lowered, eyes fixed on me. His nostrils expanded as he took in the apple’s fresh, juicy promise. His ears pointed at my palm’s generous chunk. Oh, he WANTED it! He yearned for it. But Bud moved not one step closer.
Horses sense the changing emotional states of other animals, including humans. If I’d projected irritation or frustration at this queer behavior, he would have turned around and left. I knew this, somehow.
So, imperceptibly relaxing my whole body inch by inch, limb by limb while holding out my arm and apple-filled palm, which rested on the second rail, I waited. And spoke not a word. My face registered only contentment.
He studied me for a while, then turned to check on Chella, who remained in the distant background. So again, Bud refocused on me. Even his tail was still. But his nose wasn’t. It told him I was no threat. Nevertheless, he didn’t know me. I wasn’t owner-approved. Furthermore, my behavior was novel. Horses, like all animals, prefer routine. The expected thing. This visit was –confusing and Unexpected. What did I want? Humans always ‘want’ something- usually to catch them and put them to work. The bigger question-
Would his Special Human want me here?
How do I know this? Well, he kept looking hopefully toward the distant stable door. Was she here yet? What should he do? He missed her.
Now, let’s pause a bit.
Horses and apples go together. They love its sweet, juicy fruit. I’d never heard of a horse not immediately accepting such a gift and happily scooping up the lot.
But before me stood an Arabian, a horse who forms a deep bond with his human, looking to him/her for everything that makes life good: enough food, fresh water, safety, shelter, and above all, their Person’s unstinting love, which Arabians return in full measure.
Not to say that most horses don’t do this- they DO.
Arabians, though, are justly famous for this trait.
So. Here I was, standing there with arm and palm outstretched, motionless. I decided to speak to him in a low murmur.
“Bud, humans always come out here to take you somewhere- inside for the farrier, or for a bath, or for the vet to look at and perhaps vaccinate or worm, but they rarely come for no reason. I’m here just to say ‘hi,’ and to offer an apple to you and Chella.
That about sums me up.”
Bud looked back once more at Chella, who continued to stay well away, watching. He looked again at me, sighed and stretched his neck toward me- strrrretched it-
Nope. He was still 6 inches too far away.
One hind hoof moved forward a scant 3 inches. I didn’t move. After a long, long pause his front hooves crept- and I mean crept—forward. But he still stood a tiny bit too far, so I moved my arm very, very slowly to meet his snail-slow motion- and, for just an instant, we touched. His tongue gently scooped that first yummy chunk into his mouth.
It had taken 22 minutes.
He stood there, enjoying it, but then stepped back a full pace and anchored his hooves, annoyed with himself for weakening.
It would not happen again.
I bit off another substantial bite, and as before, extended my loaded palm.
No way. He was done, and that was that. He stood facing me, neck hung low, still as a stone.
Minutes passed. He did not move.
He didn’t leave, though.
I didn’t either. I just held to my offer, my mind quiet. I was witnessing, first hand, a stunning demonstration of his allegiance to Chris. He would wait until she came. Then he would know what to do.
But oh, it was hard not to take that apple ...
Suddenly, the air around me was charged! Bud raised his elegant head and began to prance in place and nicker, eyes and ears directed straight toward the distant barn. SHE was coming out to play with him! Chris, a tall, slim, jeaned older woman came to the fence and greeted me cheerfully. I quickly explained that I’d gotten Karen’s permission to offer Bud an apple, but that her horse was very unsure...
Chris met his inquiring eyes and said, with a smile,
“Oh, Dee’s fine, Bud. Munch away!” And she laughed, realizing the truth; her horse had waited for her approval. Because now, he ate that apple with gusto and zero hesitation, waiting like a gentleman for each proffered piece. Chris was fascinated when I related, blow by blow, how he’d behaved before she’d come outside. We both marveled; she hadn’t actually experienced this form of allegiance to her before, but she wasn’t particularly surprised. She’d heard stories...
After a bit, she snapped on his lead and they went into the barn together.
Alone now, with another apple in my pocket, I called out again to Chella.
He came straight to me. He hadn’t wanted to interfere before, but since his new ‘bud’ was elsewhere...
He happily scarfed down every fat chunk I offered. We hung out for a while, and then I bade him goodbye. Chella watched as I strolled back to the barn. I heard a very soft nicker.
I think so.
I remain deeply affected by the entire incident.
He’s settling in well, and, I think, considers himself lucky to be part of this happy, caring place.
I, on the other hand, am distinctly unsettled, undone by these animals’ enormous complexity and sensitivity.
This journey is going to be revelatory!
P.S: The next day I found the two horses together outside. Bud came to me without hesitation and happily split an apple with Chella. There was no hesitation. I’ll bet there never will be again.