I had a moment of confuzzlement recently. Reading equine body language does not come from watching several horse videos or from owning horses for many years. It comes from watching domestic and wild horses in person, online, studying images and experiencing a million moments on yards and often, observing how humans respond to horses, and vice versa. It takes all those things, and over a lifetime.
Whoever came up with that line should be cold hosed on a winter morning, naked.Those that are fond of saying it should stop and think how those words may impact a child. I cringe when I hear an adult saying it to a group of children, it’s worse than cringing, I feel like someone has physically slapped me and it makes me wince. The line I usually hear next is check your diagonal!
See where I’m going with this?
Under normal circumstances when a missing child is found alive there is a feeling of overwhelming relief at the happy outcome for everyone concerned . None of these feelings would surface however when the child first locked eyes with the man, the only person she had seen during the last 8 hours. In this situation there was only a sense of trepidation and fear. Continue reading “Muchengeti Mweya “
The 8 year old child awoke early to the sound of weaver birds that were industriously building natural wonders made out of stiff grass. The house was quiet as her family continued to sleep soundly. The noise of something shifting outside the bedroom window indicated that one particular mammal knew the child was awake, which was her faithful German Shepard.
6 months previous to this morning the child had been told to sit quietly and mind her manners during a visit to a family friend’s house. This is what happens to 8 year old children, they always have to go where their parents go, no matter how dull it may seem to a young mind. Their chatter filled the air of this man’s large lounge, but the child sat in silence swinging her short legs back and forth on the sofa while staring at the ceiling fan. She was prohibited from playing in the garden, because like many gardens in this Zimbabwean town, there was a guard dog out there that would more than likely eat a stranger roaming in the garden.
The child asked if she could use the bathroom, what she really wanted to do was have a good nose around, anything to break the boredom. After a good 5 minutes of looking through the cabinet and sniffing pungent liquids in glass bottles the child grew disappointed at the lack of makeup and other girly paraphernalia. It would seem to the child there was no mummy in this house. The cabinet consisted of things called Old Spice and Brut 33. Also a good squeeze of the tube of BrilCreem meant the girl had spent 3 of the 5 minutes mopping stinky white stuff up off the floor.
Slowly walking back to the lounge she passed the double glass doors that led to the garden. Hesitant now, she stopped and listened to the adults chatting, and did the only thing a bored child would rightfully do. She carefully tried the door handle which was indeed unlocked. She quietly opened it just enough to slip through into the heat of the day.
The garden was large, very overgrown and mostly without colour apart from the splashes of yellow from gnarled unmanaged lemon trees which were adorned with fruit. The path led to a clearing consisting of worn away grass interspersed with dusty patches of soil that had been baked under an African sun. The child saw a rudimentary kennel with a post that had been hammered into the ground. Attached to this post was a heavy duty chain, and secured to this chain was an enormous German Shepard. He was dozing in the hot sun with flies swarming around his eyes and chewing on his frayed ears. His paws were lightly paddling the air, perhaps he was dreaming of a time when he was once running free through the African bush. There was a battered metallic object near him which must have once been a shallow bowl which had become flattened over time.
The child called out to the dog which instantly leapt to his feet and launched himself towards her barking wildly. The child ignored the 2 rows of yellowing teeth and walked toward the battered metal plate.
Is this yours? The child asked the dog as she picked it up.
The behaviour of the dog instantly changed. Perhaps he thought the small girl had brought food for him. He sat and whined, his now wagging tail formed swirling semi-circles in the dust. The child knelt beside the dog and caressed his head. She then ran her hand down his face to his neck, and unclipped the chain.
Two panicking parents and the boring man came rushing into the garden some 10 minutes later. By the looks on their faces they perhaps thought they were about to find the corpse of their 8 year old child. What they were presented with however was a very much alive little girl playing a game of Frisbee with a battered metal plate and a fly-chewed, but happy dog.
This is why the girl with sun-bleached hair now had a German Shepard sleeping outside her bedroom window every night. Either the boring man did the right thing and gave his dog a chance of a happy life, or he decided that he had the worst guard dog ever. Either way, the dog went home with the little girl that day.
So 6 months later the dog shifts his weight as he hears his young friend has woken and is getting dressed. The child is too excited to sleep any longer for something is happening today that she has been dreaming about since she was 3 years old.
The short boots are second hand but the child doesn’t care and for the next half an hour she sits at her parent’s dining room table making a terrible mess with boot polish. Her father had always instructed her to put down newspaper when using polish, but the child could not find any.
Before leaving the house the child grabbed her black velvet riding hat and gazed at it with wonder and excitement. Again its second hand, but the grateful child doesn’t mind. She looks inside and suddenly understands the lack of newspaper in the house. Her mother has lined the inside of the hat with last week’s edition of the Harari Times. There was no chin strap either, as they either hadn’t been invented by the late 1970’s, or this hat was an antique. Either way, the child would grow to learn the importance of a chin strap, and why it’s not ideal to use newspaper to make a hat fit.
At 6.00 am she set off to walk the 2 miles to her friend Susan’s house, but not before hugging the giant dog that outweighed her by at least 2 stone. Upon arriving she rang the doorbell but there was no answer so she tried again. Muffled sounds could be heard from inside and 20 seconds later Susan opened the door in a bedraggled, just woke up state. The blond girl eagerly asked her friend if her Dad was ready to take them to the stables. Susan did not share her excitement however and informed her friend that she was 4 hours early! With that, the door was slammed shut and Susan presumably went back to bed. Susan may be forgiven for assuming her friend would then return home.
She didn’t, the girl with the second hand boots and the news-paper packed hat sat on the curb outside Susan’s house for the next 4 hours thinking of horses, eagerly waiting for the moment she had been dreaming of since the age of 3.
*I dedicate this story to the memory of my beautiful dog Thor.
They don’t hate or love us either they merely tolerate us because they have no choice. This is the equine version of Stockholm Syndrome. Those horses that can no longer cope with pain, fear or confusion will react in a way that earns them the label ‘Dangerous’. Unfortunately it is always viewed as the horses fault and his bad character.
Usually when a novice purchases a horse things can go well for a while, things are not going well for you in the eyes of a professional horseman, but you are blissfully unaware of this, as far as you are concerned everything is super. The horse greets you every morning at the yard and you think this is cute. The horse whinnies at you because you may provide food, he comes to you in the paddock because you may provide food. Everything else you do around or on him is merely tolerated. What the horse ideally wants is to be left alone by humans and to graze with his herd. From getting the horse in from the field to putting him out again, everything in between is him merely tolerating the situation.
The worst case scenario in my eyes happens every day all over the world. It’s the novice parents that buy their child a pony. It’s just all wonderful in the parents eyes, the child is so happy running up to the pony with a carrot, giving it cuddles, hanging off the neck and playing with it like it’s a 4 legged flesh and blood version of Barbie. On searching for suitable images I actually struggled to find a pony that wasn’t pinning its ears, the worst I saw is too unsuitable to even show. But through the smiles and laughter of a happy child, pause for a while and take note of the pony’s ears, be responsible parents and ask your child to show the pony some respect.
Riding schools are particularly stressful places, there’s a lot of human traffic and noise, the ponies can all be tied up too close together when ready for lessons. They tolerate uneducated hands pulling on their mouths, flapping legs and constant chatter from the children, they can be hot and sweaty from the previous lesson, I think at this point the level of tolerance can vastly decrease. While a professional horseman can at least help his horse to have a high level of toleration during training by communicating properly, many other owners are handling animals that have an ever decreasing level of tolerance. There is definitely a scale and when a horse reaches zero tolerance the manure hits the fan and unfortunately the horse gets the blame.
A horse doesn’t love or hate, like or dislike or favour one person over another. A horse is aware of its resources and its surroundings, pain, discomfort, hunger, feeling cold/hot, thirsty, other horses and its own instincts. Your horse has no concept of been naughty, bad, silly or good. The level of tolerance a horse can obtain can also be negative or positive. That horse you see in the barn standing alone, head down and ignoring the world has a high level of negative tolerance, he’s so tolerating of people and his surroundings that he’s switched off. He’s not deaf or old, he’s not sulking, anti-social, or a ‘funny old boy’, what he wants is for you to go away with your bad communication, screaming kids and terrible riders and to be turned out in a field where he can finally feel some comfort with his own kind.
The top dressage horse you have just seen perform perfectly on the tv has a high level of positive tolerance. But achieved by someone of Carl Hester standard, who has communicated well, the horse is not confused and understands what is being asked of him. However, this horse is not enjoying himself, he’s merely tolerating been ridden and would without a doubt rather be grazing in a quiet pasture.
Be mindful of your actions on and around horses, strive to communicate effectively in a way the horse can understand, and while we are all very busy exploiting these magnificent animals aim for your horse to have a high level of positive tolerance.