I think miracles exist in part as gifts and in part as clues that there is something beyond the flat world we see. -Peggy Noonan
One Saturday the 9th of January 2011 I became Little Love’s official owner. Even though I wished for this for so long, I still didn’t see it coming when it happened. One day I was teaching her owner to ride the mare and the next she called me and said she was “done” riding the horse. I’m not going to dwell over her reasons for suddenly wanting an out from the ownership of Little Love, as it is part of her personal journey, but in the end she gave me an ultimatum: take her or leave her (in which case she would sell her to a breeder).
This of course happened at the worst possible moment: as I was literally packing my bags for our annual family visit to California – for three weeks. Not much to think, not that I had to think. But, I did have to convince my husband to thinking a horse was exactly what we needed, especially now that we know we will be moving this year – possibly overseas. Luckily I have a pretty understanding husband, and with understanding I mean he supported my wish even though neither of us is made of money.
Yes, I know, he is a saint.
So, long story as short as possible. Two days before our plane was scheduled to leave; I signed papers, withdrew half of my savings from the bank and handed them over to Little Love’s owner. She, in exchange, promised to take care of the horse until I came back. My only option really, as I could not think of anyone else to do that. In the meanwhile I was frantically looking around for a new barn. I knew that when I was back from my trip, I needed to move Lilo out of her barn, not only because of the atmosphere, but because it cost an arm and a leg to keep a horse there. I wanted a stable where she could at least go outside every day, rain or shine, preferably with other horses. I had two days and I was panicking, needless to say.
But then, another miracle. I woke up in the middle of the night and had a vision of a newspaper I once read, four years prior. In the morning I looked it up on the internet and low and behold, they had a classified section for horses. And there it was, the little ad “Looking for a horse to keep company to my gelding. Prefer English speaking person.” (the ad was in French). Well, did I need more of a sign? Not really.
I met the lady and her horse the next day. It was exactly what I was looking for. A stall, but lots of outside time and the possibility to have the horses together if they got along. As a bonus there was also an outdoor arena and great trails. And not for an arm and a leg. Given, the woman seemed a bit on the traditional side when it came to horse care, but eventhough she liked to have 10 blankets for her horse (one for every weather condition) and put three different pairs of boots on him when he went outside, she was a kind person. She also seemed to be willing to put up with my “quirks” which I carefully ran by her (bitless bridle, barefoot horse, no blankets really and we don’t ride much). We struck a deal. She and her horse would wait for us to return from California and then she would pick us up in her trailer.
Which happened last Sunday.
Timing could not have been worse. I had only been back in the country for 24 hours. It had been raining nonstop for days and Little Love hadn’t been outside for a week. It became soon apparent that she hadn’t had a lot of time outside her stall perse for the past three weeks. Due to the dressage clinic going on at the barn, the aisles were bustling with people – everybody was there. I had no opportunity to let Little Love go in any of the arenas to decompress the stress she had. Finally I saddled her up and rode her into the woods, cantering her down those familiar roads for the last time. It helped a bit, but I could not feel the connection, she was floating near dissociation from whatever had been going on for the past three weeks.
Loading her into the trailer in the pouring rain was a nightmare. Have I ever mentioned that she has an extreme fear of trailers? This fear stems from countless bad loading experiences involving whips and a lot of rearing, which often resulted in her falling over. And her fear is not just about trailers; it extends to include almost any small space, even if it is merely built from cavalettis on the ground.
I have loaded Little Love into a trailer before. This was at a time when I hadn’t quite internalized how abusive certain natural horsemanship techniques could be. I used a halter that tightened around the horse’s nose when it pulled back, but, on the same token, gave me the opportunity to “reward” the horse with a release, when it took a step forward. Pressure and release. Most people think this is training with positive reinforcement and so did I, a few years back.
In hindsight, I should have just had someone else load her into that trailer and have nothing to do with it myself. But to do that would have required some amazing foresight. I had practiced going into all kinds of small spaces with Little Love. Given, none of them were the trailer, but I was hoping everything we had learned together would transfer into the loading situation.
But sometimes hope is not enough. I believed she would just walk into that trailer if I gave her all the time in the world to decide to go in. I had, however, not quite fathomed that she needed days, weeks, maybe months to do that. Or maybe I knew all this; hadn’t I often wished I had a trailer and an area where I could park it and simply let Little Love get used to it in freedom, at her own pace? But I guess my desperate state of denial led me to believe I could bypass all that.
Over an hour later Little Love refused to even look at the trailer, let alone go close to it. She had been inside three times, but had not stayed in. She felt like that was enough for the day, and on an ordinary day that would have been plenty. But this was not an ordinary day – this was the day she had to stay in the trailer, because we were leaving. Many people walked by, some smiling and shaking their heads. The barn owner showed up uninvited with a large broom, like that would help. It was cold and we were all wet, including Little Love, who slipped in and out of dissociation, depending how close she was to the trailer.
I made the decision to let go of the fantasy in my head. In the end we forced Little Love into the trailer using longelines behind her and the said natural horsemanship halter my husband dug out from our cellar. She fought back bravely, but then eventually gave in. When I watched her shaking and locked in, I wanted to vomit.
Finally my horse was in the trailer, but I was heartbroken. I had done what I had vowed never to do again – I had taken control of her and forced her against her will. Driving to the new barn owner’s place I was silent and she sensed my mood. She said, cheerfully:
“Well, that wasn’t too bad.”
I looked at her, trying not to cry again.
“That was horrible,” I said.
“But why?” she said. “You didn’t hit her.”
How could I, in a nutshell, explain to this woman I had just met and who meant well (bless her heart, she had been so patient during the loading process), that I might as well have hit Little Love, as I had caused her pain and fear and anxiety all the same. I tried explaining negative reinforcement and what it did to animals, but the lady had no idea what I was talking about.
“But you didn’t hit her, it was all positive. Every time she came forward towards the trailer, you released the pressure.” she kept saying. “She had a choice.”
She had no choice, far from it, but I was too tired to speak. And I was so ashamed.
But, I had my horse in the trailer. And that trailer was taking us away from our own life to a place where maybe we had a chance of being who we really were. One day.
We have been at the new place for four whole days now. Little Love was extremely nervous in the beginning and she still is alert and aloof. She barely gives me the time of day, which is probably what I deserve. I have tried to stop thinking of what we had to do to get her into the trailer, but it is hard. I can come up with a million things I could have done differently but didn’t. And now here I am, literally in square one with this horse. With my horse.
I believe this is the lesson I will have to learn over and over again. All my life everything has been so easy for me with horses; I was the talented one, the good rider, the naturally gifted trainer. Blah blah blah. That all means nothing in the face of this one black mare that will barely look my way. And that is why she is now my horse, I suppose. So I can learn to be the human being I need to be. This is not about talent. And it’s not going to be easy.
I drive to the barn twice a day and marvel over my beautiful black mare. I think of everything we did together, the connection we discovered back at the toxic barn. Or was that really a connection? Was that just her way of dealing with imprisonment and now that she is free of that world, she wants to be free of what we had? Can we create a new connection, something we didn’t have there?
I don’t want to go back to the old barn, but I can sense that Little Love is grieving. It was her home for many, many years, after all. She lived with 30 other horses at that stable, and before that with 80 horses at another facility. She knew nothing else. And now, here she is, shell shocked with the one and only gelding who wants to befriend her more than anything else. Just the two of them and all those big fields to run around in. Maybe this is where she could begin to learn how be a horse again; where she could practice for the future, where ever the future may take us.
I always credit Little Love for teaching me patience, but I had no idea that there were more lessons in patience for me to discover. I feel so lost at the moment, as if the map I had was somehow misplaced, or perhaps I just fell off the map and am myself misplaced. And perhaps she feels the same. Was this a miracle after all? Where did the magic go? I love this horse, but I don’t feel she loves me back. Maybe she never will. I am coming to realize that perhaps horses don’t love people the same way we love them. But if we could find an ounce of the magic we once shared... I want to be convinced that there is something beyond "the flat world we see". Hopefully I will discover it, some day.
Wish me luck.
There are two ways to live: you can live as if nothing is a miracle; you can live as if everything is miracle. – Albert Einstein
Ps. You can read more of Little Love on my new blog “Song of the Black Horse: A Student’s Notes” at http://www.songoftheblackhorse.blogspot.com/ This new blog will be more of a diary type reading. I will continue to explore other equine related subjects through personal essays on this blog.