Yesterday morning, my retired Thoroughbred had an episode. An episode of what, I’m not sure. When I got up the hill to feed breakfast, he was weaving maniacally (he used to weave all the time, now it’s rare and half-hearted if it happens).
When he wasn’t weaving, he was tossing his head up and down, barely missing the top of the window in his shed row stall. His eyes were open as if he needed to see more than he could see, and his nostrils were flared. It was as if the skin on his face had stretched along the fine bones of his classic Thoroughbred head.
When I opened the door, I saw his legs shaking — first the left front, then the left hind, then both fronts. Periodically, he’d spin around in his stall, a series of beautiful pirouettes. Light and graceful he’s always been, and on the rare occasions when he shows me his talent, it still takes my breath away.
He was staring down the hill. I thought it might be a bear. Or some other creature, terrifying alive or terrifying dead. The only other times I’d seen a reaction as extreme as this was when I’d seen him weaving so fast his head was a blur…and then as I drove out to the road, saw a bear ambling along not five feet past my passenger door. The other time was during the winter, a less extreme reaction than what I was seeing now, but similar. For days, he was uneasy. And it was only when the snow melted that we saw the dead deer by the stream — its body preserved by the snow and ice, its neck broken against a tree.
As my horse had hysterics, I watched from outside the stall, and my Yankee-Irish horse whispering boyfriend went into the stall to try to calm him down, his voice soothing and his hands stroking my horse’s back and hindquarters. I saw my horse lift a leg and I said, “Watch out, he just lifted a leg.” My boyfriend was out of the way when my horse let go with both hinds. Perfectly synchronized, perfectly elegant, perfectly dangerous.
I saw his flanks pulsing as in a colic, and although he manured, I called my vet. I really didn’t know what was going on. My Thoroughbred is a sensitive soul — the most sensitive horse I’ve ever met by a wide margin — and life has been upsetting to him lately. His best friend in all the world left my care a few days ago, and a new horse arrived just days before that. He’d been brave, but maybe it had all been too much for him.
His routine had changed, and he’d been playing harder than he’s used to with the new horse, rearing straight up, sometimes on one hind leg, other times leaping on both hinds as he struck out and spun around. His spine is shot, the radiographs are frightening. My vet held out no promises for anything more than perhaps walking on a trail, but I knew that wouldn’t please him or me. He had his back injected a year ago in October and he’s been pain-free since then. Maybe all the shenanigans had put his back into spasm, and this was his reaction to the pain.
I remembered how my own back went into a sudden spasm after a month or so of physical therapy following my spinal fracture last summer. The pain came like a rogue wave when I lifted the lid to the toilet bowl at my sister’s house so I could fix the toilet that wouldn’t stop running. I’d acted without thinking, instinctively; I’d made a mistake, and I paid for it. Maybe that’s how it was for my horse. He did something he shouldn’t have done, acting instinctively, and now he was paying for it.
Or maybe it was a bear or a buck or the fox as big as a dog that we’d spotted the other day in the marshy field by the stream. Or maybe it was a colic — some mysterious, hidden ailment along the gut. Or something else entirely. If only he could tell me, but he himself was somewhere else entirely, in a world that was unsafe and which I couldn’t make safe if I tried. I couldn’t even take his temperature.
I went back up the hill to wait with my horse for the vet, to try to be a calming presence and observe what I could. As I walked up the hill, there was no weaving chestnut head with a bright white stripe that I could see. And I couldn’t see my boyfriend either. Maybe they were both down on the ground. Or maybe it was good news.
It was good news. I peeked in the window and saw my boyfriend standing beside my horse’s right shoulder, stroking him from just beneath his withers down to his elbow, again and again. My horse had one leg cocked, neck relaxed, his flanks still tensed and pulsing, but the other parts of his body free of visible tension. My boyfriend told me that he’d started stroking my horse on the opposite side, in the same place, and my horse had then turned around to ask for the same treatment on this side. Now you know why I call him my Yankee-Irish horse whispering boyfriend.
Things were calm after that. Until the lightning came. Which made me wonder if all the fuss was over that, even though the lightning and thunder usually don’t bother him. It’s funny how your mind works when you’re worried about a horse. My boyfriend and I sat in the straw in one of the new, still unoccupied stalls, and watched a lightning bolt come down past the sacrifice paddock. Then we heard the crack, LOUD. The lightning was less than 1000 feet away, how close exactly we don’t know.
Things were calm again after that. The horses went out. And then things got tense again when it was time to come in. Early. Because the light left the sky and in its place was an abstract drawing, as if some hand had dipped an enormous brush into a large bucket of charcoal powder, and put a wash on the canvas of the sky. The new horse didn’t want to come in. We’ve had a few brief discussions about that since he arrived. Ask a mare, tell a gelding, negotiate with a stallion. At times he still thinks he’s a stallion, even though I think he’s a big baby. But he is a big baby.
Admittedly, having a discussion about something is to be expected when a horse comes to a new place and has a new routine that’s really not a routine. I know that horses love routine, but I don’t love working with horses who love routine and get used to it, and I don’t think anyone should have to work with a horse whose routine is more important than their relationship with their owner or handlers.
The new horse had been impressively calm throughout my Thoroughbred’s episode. He’d been calm throughout the day. A little bored perhaps, because I didn’t have the energy to work with him after my morning. Maybe he wanted some together time now, although he had an interesting way of asking for it. Maybe he wanted to spend more time outside. Or maybe he wanted to see that there was hay when he came in. Or tell me he wanted the routine that I’m not ready to give him. I was playing life’s little guessing game again, for the second time in a day, and I really wasn’t in the mood.
But you do what you have to do. So we negotiated. My boyfriend was ready to bring the other horse in first, but I knew I needed this horse to do what I asked. It could be easy or it could be difficult. His choice. He chose difficult. So it took a little bit longer than it should have. I was victorious, which is always important but somehow always feels like an empty victory when a horse sets himself against you.
In the end, I told him he was a good boy but I know he knew I wasn’t as happy as I usually am with him, and I’m sure he felt the same about me. It had started to rain and the lightning came again, although it was farther away this time. Was that what it was all about? Could it be? For the second time today?
I was wet from the rain and wet from the sweat, and as I walked down the hill, I started replaying in my mind everything I’d done to see if I could have written a better script, and to reprogram myself to do something differently the next time if the same thing happened. Which could be as soon as tomorrow, or as far away as never. Because that’s the way it is with horses. And this one is still a little green, with a little history.
I learned something, as I always do when I go over things in my mind in attempt to see how I could have handled things better. I know what I did wrong. I didn’t reward every try. And I know how much this horse needs positive reinforcement. Even more so than most horses. So that made a difference, I’m sure, to him and to me, and prolonged the negotiations. I remembered Buck Brannaman’s advice: Find out how little it takes and reward every try. I wasn’t bad about finding out how little it takes…but I blew it by not rewarding every try.
Rewarding every try…if I’d been clicker training, it might have gone better. If I hadn’t had the day or the week or the month I’ve had, it might have gone better. But today is another day, and another chance to be a better horseman. Yesterday was just a day of bad weather. I know from experience that it comes and goes. As fast as lightning when you look back on it.