Continued from last time…
I knew very little about Zoe when I saw her for the first time, but her owner, Romy, had told me that no one except her groom could take her out of her paddock, that she didn’t like to be touched, and that she was dangerous to ride. The fact that she would not budge from the horse trailer upon arriving, and then, after some coaxing, could not be safely lead from the trailer to the large round pen by her owner indicated extreme tension. It took me quite a while to hand-walk her the short distance to the round pen using a long, 15-foot lead rope. I am familiar with using a rope for the purpose of keeping a horse at some distance behind me and did so with Zoe so that she would remain out of striking and kicking range. My 120 lbs was not enough to contain the 2000 lb, 18-hand mare from leaping, bolting and rearing, but with the rope I could set a parameter so that she wouldn’t harm me when her feet left the ground.
Once in the round pen she seemed unmanageable, throwing her head and her tail straight up in the air, bolting, bucking, whinnying, and sweating. By her behavior, she seemed not to be at all cognizant of Romy and me just outside the pen. Fortunately, other horses had taught me that these kinds of superficial interpretations of behavior did not tell a complete story. How things appear to us do not always reveal the underlying truth. Perhaps never do they…
As we remained outside the pen to observe, I began to search Zoe’s demeanor for more clues. First, in spite of the tension that was coursing through her entire being, she was not running herself into the fence, into the ground, or anywhere accept in fits and starts within the pen. It takes some presence of mind to respect such parameters while under the influence of so much turmoil. This allowed me to question the label of “insane mare” that she came with.
Secondly, Zoe definitely wanted to look, and rushed to and fro to then stop and gaze at everything between bolts. Maybe it’s that we forget what it’s like to be a child, needing to explore all that lies around us. Or maybe it’s just that we’ve heard the phrase, “get that horse to pay attention to you,” for so long that we have lost the ability to appreciate one of life’s natural functions at work: the gift of raw awareness, an “on-site resource” that allows us — both horses and people — to process and interpret the meaning of the world around us, and to do so to the point where we are settled, or confident, with our place in it.
Thirdly, the tensions that Zoe exhibited — head and neck pariscoping, back hollow, tail high and arched, body rigid — were typical of any horse filled with fear and insecurity. For a person to step in at this point to get a response would have been asking for disappointment, a fight, an escalation of reactivity, or all of the above. She was not yet capable of freeing her mind from trying to figure out where she was, to then also respond to the requirements of a human.
After a while, however, her sudden bursts of movement began to include sniffing the ground, the rail, the wind. With each lowering of her head the muscles in her body could release some modicum of tension, even if only for a few seconds at a time. Her prance and dart from one side of the round pen to the other eased into a sporadic trot and even an occasional walk. By this time, she had still not looked our way, nor seemed to care about our human presence… oh, but wait… there was that little twitch of an ear, cocked in our direction for a few nanoseconds now and again. It’s something that’s easy to miss, but it reflected the fact that she was aware of us.
At this point, I had Romy move inside the pen and wait in the middle. Although Zoe still appeared transfixed with all that was happening around her, she would often arc in close to Romy on her way from one side of the pen to the other. For many people, this behavior is particularly annoying. The horse seems like it’s finally coming in to acknowledge you, but then turns and moves off like you never existed.
But there’s another way to interpret it. Just as a child who is barely old enough to be aware of the world outside its mother wanders off before coming back in for reassurance, so will a horse come close before their inherent need to assess their world pulls them out again to gaze at their surroundings. A “drive-by,” I call it, indicating that there was something positive Zoe received by veering close to her person before going back out toward the rail to look away some more.
Nothing. Zoe’s inherent processes were already busy at work, helping her to bit by bit calm and settle herself. That was a lesson no one would be able to make her learn. But by staying out of her way, we could give her the opportunity to learn it for herself. In other words, we were using her wandering attention, normally considered a liability, to our benefit, and for the benefit of Zoe as well. In the problem lies the solution.
Tune in next time for more of Zoe’s journey…