My good friend tells me how she often grooms her horse in liberty on the barn aisle. Most of the time he agrees to stand there without being restrained, but one day he decided to visit his friends with whom he goes out with. Except this time those friends were in their boxes behind bars and he was on the barn aisle, loose.
My friend quickly interrupted the sniffing between the horses and pushed her horse back into his place. Because… (she said to me) she had been taught to do so. And it is true. When I walk Little Love through the barn to the indoor arena and she stops to sniff another horse who is greeting her from his box, I urge her forward, pulling her away from the situation. If there was something I learned as a child, it was that horses should not touch each other when humans are handling them - ever. And this habit is engrained in my brain, etched into my behavior permanently, almost as if chiseled in stone. It is the unwritten rule of all barns.
So what is so bad about letting horses touch and say hello?
I guess someone would argue that horses could get excited, they could hurt each other or themselves or even the human holding them. Obviously letting two stallions touch might result in some sort of a commotion, but to let a gelding sniff a mare through the bars of a box – why not?
Does everything we do with these animals have to be about control, separation, deprivation of freedom?
Humans have put a lot of effort into imprisoning horses. Not only do we separate these herd animals into small boxes, we often also deny any contact whatsoever. I have seen barns where boxes are constructed of solid walls made out of wood or rock or cement, and horses cannot even see each other, let alone touch. I believe in the human world we call this solitary confinement, reserved only for convicts who have committed heinous crimes.
The barn where Little Love lives has beautiful green pastures, but each horse has their own and never under any circumstances do horses go out together. But fortunately they are able to see and touch with their neighbors through the metal bars of the box, which obviously is not much, but better than nothing. They can also stick their heads out of the small window on their door, at least the ones whose owners have not decided to keep the window closed to prevent accidents.
Most horses accept this order, either retreating to the privacy of their stall or occasionally sticking their heads out to look around. But there are some horses, that have learned how to bend the rules.
For example, there is a gelding, I’ll call him M for short, who hates his box with a passion. He also has a small window through which he can poke his head into the aisle, but because he likes to let everyone know loud and clear what he thinks about living in that jail of his, this window often has to be closed to stop him from kicking the door, not to mention all the halters and other reachable equipment he has destroyed with his teeth.
When you take M out of his stall, however, he doesn’t try to run outside, but instead pushes towards the mare that lives opposite to him. And almost as if planned ahead, she quickly meets him at her window and immediately, almost frantically, the two horses start to groom each other on the shoulder. This happens fast, with an air of madness as if to say “hurry before they break us up. Hurry, hurry!” So this is how they get their ten seconds of closeness before the gelding is torn away.
One day when I arrived at the barn, I discovered Little Love longing for the touch of another equine as well. She stretched her neck out as far as she could (and she has a long one, to her advantage) and reached with her nose towards Chispero, the gentle stallion across the aisle. And as I watched him meet her in the middle and kiss her softly on the nose, my heart broke a little bit more.