Last year I watched the movie Instinct with Anthony Hopkins starring as a man who leaves humanity behind to live with animals only to return to society under unpleasant circumstances. While in prison, he meets a psychiatrist played by Cuba Gooding Jr. The movie is inspired by Daniel Quinn’s novel Ishmael and gives the viewer valuable lessons about human and animal relationships.
In the movie there is a scene where Hopkins, who previously has lived with gorillas in the wild, is allowed to visit the gorillas at the zoo. Saddened by the state of the captive animals, he relives some traumatic memories from the past. He also, to make a point, opens the cage door of the imprisoned silver back male. Cuba Gooding Jr.’s character, who is there with him, is aptly horrified. He is clearly afraid the enormous gorilla will surely escape.
“He won't come out,” Anthony Hopkins says. “You see? Even if he can.” And it’s true; the huge male ape barely gives the open door a second look. Anthony Hopkins looks sad. “Not far from here is a fence, and on the other side of that fence is freedom, and he can smell it. He'll never try to get there, because he's given up. By now he thinks freedom is something he dreamed.”
There are many scenes in this movie that remind me of horses and the various ways we have taken their freedom, but this particular one reminded me of a certain gray mare I met two years ago almost to the date. My good friend Sam introduced us on a cold winter morning in California. My first impression of this little, gray horse was heart-wrenching; although at first contact she seemed sociable, I could feel an overpowering sadness welling up inside me. Her back sagged and the muscling on the underside of her neck told a story of tension and resistance.
“This is Sapphire,” Sam said. The mare turned her head and touched my hand, her ears carefully placed forward, her expression neutral. She was kind, but her gesture was slightly mechanical, as if she was merely behaving the way she had learned to behave to avoid trouble.
“Touch her mouth,” Sam said, nodding toward the mare’s head. I wrinkled my brow. What did he mean?
Curious, I slid my fingers down the mare’s nose to her lips. When my hand came to the corner of her mouth, I stopped. The flesh of her lips was hard, like it wasn’t flesh at all, but a solid piece of wood. I pulled my hand away, confused.
“What is that?” I couldn’t help but touch it again. Saphie turned her head and I felt the other side of her mouth. It was even worse, the hardness extending toward her cheek.
“It’s scarring,” Sam said.
“Scarring?” Even though I was already fully aware of the harmful effects of the bit, I had never actually seen such extensive tissue damage.
“Imagine what it took to produce that kind of scarring,” Sam said. He shook his head. “This horse has gone through a lot.”
And that she had.
In fact, she had several loose and cracked teeth from the heavy hands that had ridden her during her 14 years of life. She was spooky, nervous and had been labeled a crazy Arab mare at her previous home, a riding school, where she had been placed after what Sam called “her fall from grace” as a prestigious dressage horse. She had a reputation of being barn sour to the point that she didn’t want to leave the stall never mind the property. If you turned her out she would run herself into the ground.
Saphie didn’t trust people and was constantly in flight mode which meant reacting to everything around her. She was a horse that literally could not think about eating hay, grain, treats or even green grass when a person was anywhere near her. Not that humans wanted anything to do with her at this point anyways, not a soul seemed to care about this sad wreck of a horse.
Saphie came into Sam’s life at a time that he was starting to work with “natural horsemanship” something he now looks back on with a sense of sadness and shame. I know how he feels, having been down a similar road myself. We all start our path somewhere; many things we learn on the way make sense at the time, but often later seem harsh and even abusive. But, it is important to get on the path, and sometimes methods we abandon later can be, as Sam says, “doorways to something different”.
So Sam did what he felt was the right thing. He would let Saphie loose in the arena and interrupt her frantic cantering by demanding her attention, cutting her off and forcing her to change direction by waving a flag at her. He would let her run around him at the end of the rope halter and long line until she was worn down, exhausted and often dripping wet. He worked her in the round pen, he backed her up over and over again by wiggling or bumping the rope halter on her nose.
Later, in an email to me, Sam wrote: “All of these so-called natural ways of doing things involved (negative conditioning) persistent pressure, punishment or mental /physical pain. Needless to say Saphie was not impressed with the whole natural horsemanship system.”
When Sam moved to a new barn he decided to try expanding Saphie’s territory. This involved leaving her stall door open all day. How ingenious. I wished I could do the same. What would Little Love do in such a situation? What would any horse do? I had always thought a horse whom was offered such a possibility would rush out and run around. Wasn’t that why we kept them locked up in the first place?
But not Saphie. She was like the gorilla in the movie, who thought freedom was something he dreamed. It took the little gray mare weeks to merely peek out the open door. The slightest noise or perceived danger would make her bolt back into the safety of the stall. But, when you give something enough time, changes will start happening. Slowly, one step at a time, Saphie made her way out of her prison. Soon the barn isle became the place to meet boys and clean up spilled hay. But, although the barn doors were never closed, she never dared venture outside.
To give her some help, Sam decided to start leading her outside with a halter. He would walk her away from the barn and let her go. But as soon he released his grip on the mare, Saphie would panic and run back in. She was in such a hurry to get back to the safety of her stall that on one occasion she actually fell over. This was a clear message to Sam and he let her be.
Again weeks went by and although Saphie now seemed completely comfortable in the barn isle Sam thought she would never build up the confidence to go exploring. Then, one windy day, Saphie came out of her stall and marched with rhythm and purpose straight out of the barn. She walked calmly past a strange flapping blue tarp that had been placed on the fence to dry. She went all the way down the hill to say hi to some horses that where turned out in the arena.
“If I had not seen it with my own eyes I would never have believed it,” Sam said when recounting the story to me that cold California morning when I first met Saphie. “And after that day she would come and go at will. Just like that.”
I only met Saphie for a short time that year, but despite our short contact, I could not forget her, I could not forget her story. Hearing about Sam’s experiences with the mare had changed my perception of freedom. When we choose to cage an animal, we choose to take something valuable from them - for life. Setting them physically free will not guarantee setting free their spirit, for sometimes it is not just the bars that hold the caged animal inside. There is so much more to freedom than our environment and circumstances. Freedom is a state of mind.
The next time I met Saphie, Sam had moved her to his own property, where she lived outside with another horse. There was no more “natural horsemanship” i.e. moving her around in various ways. Instead, there was an increasing amount of time spent being together, doing nothing but sharing territory. Saphie seemed to me a completely different animal than the fearful, traumatized mare from the previous winter. Sam, too, had changed. The year before he had wondered why he had chosen to take in the “crazy” mare, and I had told him that he had it all wrong, it had been Saphie who had chosen him. She had seen his potential. Even in the midst of her own painful life, she had been able to recognize a kindred spirit, a person who could evolve to understand.
It never ceases to amaze me how generous and forgiving horses are. I believe I have said this before and I will not stop saying it: horses are the most forgiving creatures on earth. Take a horse like Saphie who had no reason to trust ever again; humans had only proven to take, never to give. Yet she chose to trust again. I am utterly speechless in front of such grace of character. Do horses innately understand that the only way to move into the future is to forgive the past? Are they all born to be wounded healers?
Recently I got an email from my friend Sam. Sapphire, the little gray mare, died a few weeks ago. According to Sam, she left our world in a true Saphie nature, suddenly and without a fuss. In his email Sam wrote: “I found great solace in that she was my first true teacher and that she was generous enough to show me a side of horses I did not know even existed before her. If you asked her she would probably have said I was a tough nut to crack but that I think he is starting to get some of it. I have walked a little way along the path with him and now it is time to move on.”
Saphie spent her last summer with Sam making many human friends, one of which was a six-year-old girl called Rosemary. Rosemary would invite Saphie out of her pen with a look and a call of her name. They companion walked (no tack) over to a flat area where Rosemary would spend time grooming while Saphie had a pre-practice snack. After this they headed off to the arena at liberty to see what would evolve. Some days they would run and trot together, others they would just lay in the sand. If it felt mutually right, Rosemary would slip a cordillo or a rope halter on Saphie and using body language ask her to come and stand at the mounting block. Rosemary would then clamber on bareback and the two would play for a short while until one would let the other know they wanted to do something else.
This, I believe, in Saphie’s world was called freedom.
In the Path of the Horse movie Linda Kohanov says: “They’ve carried us around on their backs for centuries waiting for us to notice that they aren’t here just to help us evolve in terms of mastering nature and moving around the planet. They are actually waiting for us to get to the point where we are ready to evolve to a higher level of consciousness and awareness.”
The little gray mare came into Sam’s life when he needed a teacher. I met her just in passing, but yet her wisdom followed me across the world. She reminded me that every horse has wisdom to share, but especially the wounded ones; those horses that have seen the dark side of man. This is an important message to pass on to anyone who dares listen and so, by telling Sapphire’s story, I am passing it to you. It is a message of friendship, love, freedom and forgiveness – it is a message of hope and healing.
Photos by Julie Mummerlyn for Discovering Horses