Sunday, March 27, 2011

Never forget me

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: - more on equine research - an interesting article about horse’s memory - a heartwarming video of a woman and a horse who meet for clicker training after 7 years of separation


  1. This post spoke to me in a way I cannot describe. I have wanted horses my entire life but I waited until I knew I could keep them for the rest of their lives.

    What you described about Little Love and the german gelding really touched my heart.

    I am sorry that you will have to separate Little Love and Col and it is clear that you wish you could avoid it if at all possible. Little Love, and Col, are lucky that the person in charge of their future cares so much about both of them. Thank you for writing this. I feel so lucky to be able to keep my herd of 8 together and hopefully will be able to for the rest of their lives.

    I love how thoughtful your posts are and how much you take into account the horse's perspective on life.
    Sue and the crew
    Dream Valley Ranch

  2. Beautiful post, thank you! I wish you and your horse luck when you move.

  3. My horses have been together since my mare was born 7 years ago. A little part of me lives in fear everyday that I'll lose one of them, I don't know what they'd do if they didn't have each other.

  4. This post spoke to me, too, as many of yours do. My sweet Miles lives with LaShore, another amazing, sweet, smart gelding. I love that Miles lives outside 24 hours a day, with his best friend, and has the view of practically the whole farm and all the other horses. It's perfect...we tried him with other geldings and mares, but LaShore is the only horse he bonded with. I would cry buckets if they were ever separated, for any reason, because I can FEEL the bond between those two. I'm sorry, I know that doesn't help you, but I know for sure horses bond and those relationships are stronger than we can ever know.

    Little Love WILL be ok, though, when you move. Because you are on her side, and her best advocate, and you will make sure she ends up in a situation that is best for her:)

  5. NOW look what you've done! Came across your blog and it's obvious I have to start at the beginning and catch up. Thank You so much for your words and thoughts. Lisa

  6. My horse has always lived in company with other horses. He bonds easily and is very social, but it is clear that the level of friendship varies a lot. I have had to keep him with just one other horse for a while, but he much prefers to have more company. Now he is with three other horses, which is much better: different occasions or moods ask for a different friend ;-) As a young horse I gave him to my riding teacher to train, and he was part of her herd. This herd is still his favorite herd and throughout the years he went back there, sometimes just for a few months, sometimes longer. It is always like a home coming for him, and while the relationships change over time, it is very clear that he remembers the others and they remember him.

    A friend of mine had a gelding who went through different hands before she got him. She loved him, but he was never really happy with her, he did not look well and had lots of health problems. Then through the internet she was contacted by a former owner, who had to sell him as a young girl (and never got over him). They met and befriended each other, and in the end the gelding went back to the former owner. When he arrived at his old stable it was very clear that he remembered everything. And he is a changed horse since then: he looks fit and young. I so love the happy ending to that story, even though my friend had to let her horse go.

  7. WONDERFUL!! I know that my pony went thru a serious depression when he first arrived here. He'd left his home of 9 years, the girl who loved and trained him, and his herd of buddies. No wonder he ran away with me that first week. I would have done the same in his shoes.....Now I "get it." Thanks for posting this!!!

  8. Again, the comments here are priceless! Thank you all; it seems like there are many lucky horses out there with wonderful owners and buddies to live and bond with. Gives me hope for the world.

    Nipomuki, I love how your friend was able to let go of her horse just so he could go back to his old owner. To be able to let go like that is a sign of true love.

  9. Love this post. Makes me think of elephants and the way they will recognize each other, from he same family groups, after being separated 40 years.

  10. I have always kept my horses for life, but the saddest thing is that each death leaves the survivor bereft. Currently, my only horse is a thirteen year old gelding who may end up outliving me (I'm in my 60's). Or, I may be forced by finances to sell him, because I don't know for how long I will be able to work and afford him. The thought of him losing the only home he has ever known makes my heart so sad, and I hope that somehow he will always be OK.

  11. That is true, it is not emotionally easy to be the "last survivor". I hope you will be able to keep your gelding even in retirement. Maybe you can talk to him about your fear of losing him. It can help both of you understand the situation and manifest for a long life together.
    All the best to you and your gelding.

  12. So true! I have seen a mare loosing her mother after living whole life together. Will she ever be the same as before? Who knows? Owner said that she neighed every evening with no reply waiting for mom to appear... Now she is completely alone as they were the only horses at the barn. I do hope I will someday be able to buy her and give her a lifetime company of other horses.

  13. Oli upeaa lukea sun teksti Tunne Hevosesta :> Sanni

  14. When I brought Gussie home- I had sold her two years previously- she and Coyote Belle talked up a storm; they were best friends before Gussie was sold, and were very happy to see each other again. Then when I started riding Gussie, she was pretty emotional as if even the thought of separation from her BFF for even half an hour was too much. I told her that she didn't have to worry; that she wouldn't be sold again- and darned if our rides didn't improve. Now she is much more relaxed, although that could be attributed to acclimation.

  15. Has anyone made plans for their horses in their will? I'm 54, and our horses are 3, 8, 8, and 20. The younger ones and I will be hitting old age at about the same time - I hope we can survive together, but if not (or if anything happens in the meantime), I want to be sure that they are provided for - and preferably can stay together.

  16. There's such a culture of "trading up" in the horse world, as if the horse were sports equipment. It starts in childhood, with parents buying bigger, better, more advanced mounts for their kids. I was guilty of the same thing as a teenager - my old pony was about to be sold, when thank the Lord, an opportunity came up to loan him indefinitely to a girl who lived on the same farm where we had kept him for years, and he lived out his life there. I'm still grateful that fate intervened and didn't let me do such a terrible thing to him. The very words now "about to be sold" send a cold chill through my soul.