Promise me you'll never forget me because if I thought you would I'd never leave. ~A.A. Milne
Last year, when my horse Little Love was not yet mine and she was still living at a large commercial stable, something interesting happened. At the end of the summer the owners of the barn bought a new horse for their teenage daughter. The big, brown gelding arrived from Germany and was immediately put into the routines of the barn.
After the gelding had been at the barn for about three days, I noticed a difference in Little Love’s behavior. The first time it happened it was morning, when all the horses went outside in their separate runs. I was walking her up to her allotted pasture strip when she called out in a clear and high pitch whinny. I hadn’t heard her say a peep for months and her loud voice caught me by surprise. Her head was up high and she took a few trot steps, peering to her right at the pastures reserved for the barn owner’s four horses.
I heard a whinny coming from the first pasture and saw the new gelding trot to the fence, his eyes fixed on Little Love. She stopped in her tracks and spun around, staring at the gelding. A soft nicker erupted from her throat; low and melodious it sounded as if she was singing. I had never heard her talk like that and when the gelding answered in an equally beautiful tone, low and bubbly, as if he was laughing, I could only smile in wonder.
I didn’t think much of the incident, until the next day when I drove to the barn and saw the gelding standing in his pasture at the fence and staring keenly at the barn. When I passed in my car, saw Little Love’s head poked out her stall window. Ears up and nose forward, she was looking at the gelding. What was going on?
At first I thought perhaps it was the novelty of a new male horse entering the barn, but as soon as the thought crossed my mind, I dismissed it. It was not unusual for horses to come and go at this facility, as it had over 35 stalls with privately owned horses. And why would Little Love feel drawn to this particular gelding when there were four stallions living in the barn? And even when she did express interest towards the stallion, it was never anything like this. There was something special about this gelding.
I asked the owners where he had come from, but it didn’t tell me much as I also was not completely familiar with Little Love’s past. But I did know that she had originated from Germany, just like this gelding. As the weeks turned into months, I watched as the gelding stood vigil in front of Little Love’s window until it was closed for the winter. Once, when the new barn worker messed up the turn out schedule, Little Love ended up in someone else’s run, next to the gelding. Oh the joy of the reunion! There was no amount of electricity that could keep the two from touching each other. They sniffed over the fence and when Little Love peed it sent the gelding into a wild gallop up and down the fence. Unfortunately this behavior was frowned upon and the turn out schedule was resumed in the correct fashion.
It was obvious that the two horses had a connection. And not just any connection; I was convinced they had known each other before. But it had been 9 years since Little Love had left Germany where the gelding had been bought from. Could it be possible that the two had met in their youth and remembered each other after so many years? Who was he and what had he meant to her then? Had they shared an experience? I was fascinated.
How good is the memory of a horse? In a study led by Evelyn Hanggi, MS, PhD, co-director at the Equine Research Foundation (ERF) in Aptos, Calif., horses that had been tested on recognition and advanced learning abilities as many as 10 years earlier were able to repeat the same tasks with a nearly perfect level of accuracy without having to learn the skills again. Not only were the horses able to remember the specific objects learned years ago, they were able to apply those previously learned rules and concepts to never-before-seen objects years later.
Just recently ethologist Carol Sankey of the University of Rennes and her colleagues tested how well 23 horses remembered a female trainer and her instructions after she and the horses had been separated up to eight months. Although the time lapsed in this study was significantly shorter than the one done by Hanggi, and results were similar – horses have good memories. The added twist to this research was the fact that some of the subject horses were trained using positive reinforcement and others using none. The researchers concluded that the “horses trained without reinforcement expressed four to six times more 'negative' behaviors, such as biting, kicking and 'falling down' on the experimenter." Also, after the 8 months of separation, the horses trained with positive reinforcement gravitated towards their old trainer, rather than other people. They also seemed to accept other humans more willingly than the other subject horses that had not received positive reinforcement during training.
Studies such as the ones mentioned above, often focus on learning and the animal’s ability to remember what it has learned. But what about horse- horse relationships? Will a foal remember its mother for as long as it lives? Do buddies stabled together recognize each other after years of separation? You only have to do a search on the subject on the internet to believe that they do, as it seems like almost everyone has a story to share about happy horse reunions. And not just horse reunions, but horse – human reunions as well.
Little Love is now my horse and she lives at a very small barn in the country side. It is the first time in ten years that she has the opportunity to have a social life with another horse. Her friend Col is a Danish warmblood gelding who loves Little Love at least as much as she loves him. Watching the two horses spend time together is my favorite past time, as you can visibly see the friendship and the caring emanating from the two.
But, as much as I enjoy the relationship between the two horses, it also makes my heart heavy. In a few months my family will be moving to another country and naturally I will be taking my beautiful Little Love with me. How will the two horses cope with the separation, a separation that will most likely last a lifetime? What right do I have to even think of separating them?
Horses form life lasting relationships, but only if we allow them to do so. My thoughts are with all the hundreds of thousands of horses that are sold yearly all around the world. Some have been with their peers for years and get uprooted in a moment’s notice; some travel around the world and never have a moment to form a lasting bond with a horse or human before they are sent off to the next barn. And then there are those that live in such pain and suffering and stress that they don’t even have the emotional capacity to connect with another living being. Just the thought of that makes me want sit down and spend a moment remembering all the hundreds of horses that have passed through my life, many of them which gave me many valuable experiences. Was I, too, someone who gave them a good moment in time, a positive memory? If we met again, would they remember? Would they even want to remember?
I have two dogs and I would never dream of selling them to a soul. Nor would I dream of separating them for any reason. Most dog owners would think you crazy, if you asked them to sell you their dog. Dogs are family members. Why do we treat horses so differently? Is it because they don’t live with us, sleep in the same house with us, follow us around, that we consider them more distant, not worthy of the same level of bonding, of love? And how much does monetary value play a part in our feelings or the lack thereof?
I once knew someone who sold her horse to another continent after owning it for over a decade. It was a phenomenal horse and helped his owner become a respected competitor and trainer. She had acquired the horse as a foal and trained it single handedly up the dressage levels. When I heard she had done the unthinkable, I at first could not believe it; what had possessed her to sell her dressage partner? I’m not sure the owner could even believe it herself when she watched her long time friend load on a truck and leave.
The horse flew across the ocean to his new home, but already during the long trip, he fell horribly ill. The vets worked as hard as they could, but the gelding would not get better. Finally, as a last resort his old owner flew to see him, to help heal the gelding’s high fever and lost appetite. She stayed with him for a week and he recovered from his physical symptoms, but the underlying broken heart was probably never cured on neither person nor horse.
I, too, once sold my horse, the only one I ever owned before Little Love. I can’t say I sold him without a second thought, because it did affect me, and still does even if I owned him for only a short while. At that time, it seemed like the logical thing to do, given that I was moving overseas. I soothed my guilty conscious by telling myself he went to a good home, which he did. I have seen him since and each time we meet I can’t help but wonder why I didn’t try harder to keep him with me. But even when I wonder, I know. It was more convenient to exchange him for well-needed cash. Ironically, most of the money I received for his sale was still sitting in my bank account until a few months ago. It was as if I was waiting for something important enough, worthy enough, to come along before my conscious allowed me to touch the money. Or perhaps I knew in my heart that someday, six years later, I would need it to buy another horse, a horse that I did not want to leave behind.
How much do we really know about the emotional lives of horses? Not much. But we know they are sentient being with vast emotional landscape, perhaps even more complex, but certainly different, than ours. I may never find out how Little Love knew the big, brown gelding at her old barn, but does it matter? They know who they are and where they met and I am sure they rejoiced in the fact that they were lucky enough to meet again. I hope that in the years to come I can introduce Little Love to many more horses, horses that will stay in her life for years to come, some perhaps for the rest of her life. Like me.
As what comes to Little Love and her current friend Col, only time will tell. I am selfishly going to take my mare with me to our new home, because this time I am not ready to sell my horse. In fact, that is no longer an option and never will be, because truth told, she is not really mine, but rather I am hers.
Some interesting links:
www.equineresearch.org - more on equine research
http://horsehints.org/StudyMemoryDiscovery.htm - an interesting article about horse’s memory
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mOgtI23xqXE - a heartwarming video of a woman and a horse who meet for clicker training after 7 years of separation