Pleasure is spread through the earth
In stray gifts to be claimed by whoever shall find.
~William Wordsworth, 1806
Look at the picture above. What do you see?
What you are looking at is a picture of a poster that is for sale for approximately 20 dollars in an American horse catalogue. The text beside the poster says: “The image of an inquisitive muzzle nuzzling a timid, but determined little hand evokes memories of an experience all horse lovers hold in common.”
The name of the poster is “The Gift”, but I am left unsure as to what gift this is referring to; the imprisoned horse giving the girl the gift of the nuzzle or the girl giving the imprisoned horse the gift of touch.
When I was a child, all the horse posters on my walls (and I assure you, there were MANY), illustrated various horses in freedom. I can’t remember one single one with a tacked up horse, let alone a ridden one or one stuck behind bars. Is this what the equestrian world has come to? Is taking the freedom of another living being so “normal” that it is now even depicted in posters for children? The above picture is supposed to evoke “memories of an experience we all hold in common”. I can tell you it definitely evokes my memories. In fact, some of those memories are of experiences from the not so distant past. I remember writing about one of those experiences in my blog (Levels of Imprisonment, August 29, 2010). I wrote: “But if there is a will, there is a way. The only opening to this horse’s box stall is a small gap above his feeder through which the barn worker delivers the daily grain portions. It is just big enough to fit a human hand and a scoop. And a horse’s muzzle. “
I was writing about a gelding who would twist his neck to an unconceivable angle just to get his nose pushed through the feeder hole. And why? To touch another horse.
Here is a picture I took much later of that very same horse. Unfortunately, this time his neighbor's window was closed and the two horses could not touch. What you see is him reaching out to me.
The similarities to the poster are obvious, but the context completely different. Perhaps my memories are not the memories the catalogue was talking about…
Little Love and I have been gone from her old barn for a mere three weeks, but somehow that short time already feels like a lifetime. At her old barn horses lived in stalls exactly like the one in the poster picture. They rarely were able to touch each other. If it happened, it was an accident or the product of horse ingenuity. Perhaps the top electric wire broke between two pastures or the electricity was left off for a brief moment or a horse managed to get loose from his owner and ran to another horse. Or a horse stuck his nose through his feeder hole. But these were exceptions to the rule. And the rule was no touching.
When we were still there, I did my best to produce the horse to horse touch for Little Love. I know she would have preferred another horse to me as I am a sad replacement, but she took what she could get.
One day not so long ago I was scratching her over the withers, something she loves. As I started rubbing her hard with my fingers, she leaned into me with her nose wiggling. This prompted her new neighbor, a large gelding, to spin around in his stall and stare at me in disbelief. For a moment he merely observed what I was doing, then he took action. He pushed his head against the metal bars that separated his space from Little Love’s. I could see his eyes fix on me. “Come on, rub me, too” he was saying.
I continued rubbing Little Love with one hand as I pushed the fingers of my other hand through the bars. I could just about fit half my hand through. The gelding moved his head and let my fingers scratch over his forehead and nose. Then he positioned his neck to be in line with my hand. So there I stood, scratching Little Love’s withers with my left hand and with my right attempted to reach her neighbor, the big gelding. Both horses stretched their noses out in pleasure and breathed at each other through the bars of the stall.
We are mammals; we all have the need to touch each other and to be touched. Companionship is one of our basic needs, along with eating, drinking, moving and sex. Living in isolation can affect the mental state of any animal, but especially horses, as they are by nature herd animals. Isolation induces stress and a stressed animal cannot learn and train with 100% capacity. Yet ironically it is often the so called performance horses that live in such isolation.
I can now truly see the detriments of forcing an animal to live in a cage. Little Love, the horse that had not had any real horse-to-horse contact for over ten years, has now been going outside with her new friend Col for seven whole days. Due to this fact, she is a changed horse. She is more grounded, more relaxed, more at peace. Yes, she is still coming into a stall at night, but the fact that she can at all times reach over the wall and touch another of her kind, is huge.
I am happy I can finally give her the gift of a social life after all those years of isolation. And there are not a lot of things I enjoy more than watching Little Love interact with her first horse-friend in a decade. Hopefully someday she can give up stall living completely and join a herd living outside, but for the moment, she is visibly content with this small change to her life. In fact, she is so content, that someone could say she doesn’t need me anymore, at least not the way she “needed” me in her previous life. And there is some truth to that, since an imprisoned animal (or person, for that matter) will undoubtedly look forward to any interaction, even if it is with his captor and a member of another species. In that light, can we even pretend to have a real relationship with an animal that is kept in solitary confinement? I have to say that I still feel and hope I had a connection with Little Love before, when she lived a different life. This connection is now evolving and although I definitely have lost something precious (her undivided attention, perhaps?), I have also gained, and continue to gain something else in return, a whole new level of consciousness and connection I never knew about before.
This, I believe, is truly a gift.
If you love something, set it free; if it comes back it's yours, if it doesn't, it never was.
PS. There is another major detriment to the stall-bound life: insufficient movement. Horses are born to move and they should be allowed to move, day and night. Movement is what keeps their bodies healthy, starting from their hooves but affecting the joints, muscles and other tissues. A horse kept in a stall does not move enough and is thus prone to injury.
Two horses stretching out to touch each other