I’ve been around horses for seven years now, and they still teach me new things each and every day.
A bit of background: I have been volunteering at my second home, Tierra Madre Horse Sanctuary, for five years now, and since June I have been out there at least four or five times a week while I look for work. (Actually, starting next week, I will be starting as a full-time worker as a ranch manager! More on that later.)
Today started out just like any other day. I have been running the ranch in the mornings and am in charge of turning horses in and out of the arena, giving medical care, feeding, dolling out mashes, and overseeing that the chores get done. We are always short on volunteers on Mondays, so I was running around getting things done. Make mashes. Make dinners. Check water buckets. Give mashes. Do wound care. Turn horses out. The most important thing is to oversee the volunteers – because when you’re in charge, anything that goes wrong on the ranch is your fault. Part of my job is to make sure everyone else on the ranch is safe at all times.
As my mind dipped into 10 or 11 different places, another volunteer and I went to grab Slayer and the Iron Man, two big Thoroughbreds that needed some serious exercise. Slayer went with my volunteer like a champ. Iron Man, on the other hand, promptly freaked out when I walked in his stall with a halter. Threw his head up, bit the horse beside him square on the butt, head butted me in the shoulder, the works.
Pissed, I scolded him and made him back up in his stall so I could get his halter on. Several of our horses need to work on their manners, as was evidenced to me not fifteen minutes before when one of our horses in the field bullied two more I was taking home and scared them enough to make them nearly run me over. I was burnt out from everything and more importantly, I was remembering last Wednesday’s adventure during which I was briefly dragged by another horse before I was smart enough to let go of the rope.
I got the stud chain to show Iron Man I meant business. Either he listened and behaved nicely, or there would be consequences. As much as I love all the horses on that ranch, I was not in the mood to get dragged again.
After I told the volunteers watching to clear the way for us, we walked out of his stall and as I predicted, Iron Man pranced around me and occasionally jumped up on his hind legs, butting into me and walking in front of me and overall being ornery. When we got up to the barn right across from the arena, he bolted and would have gotten away from me had I not turned him in a tight circle to slow him down. I spoke to him firmly and pulled my lead rope down to give him a little tug with the stud chain, telling him to behave himself until I finally got him out to the arena. Once I took the halter off he ran off, but stopped after a minute or two.
Seriously confused and just a little bit irritated, I went on about my day and while he and Slayer galloped around for a little bit, mostly Iron Man just stood and watched me. He didn’t want to play. He just stood.
Finally another volunteer and I went in there with them to try to get them to play and burn off some steam. Slayer galloped around as we bounced our awesome huge pink ball (what we use to get our horses to exercise), but Iron Man just stood watching me. He backed away when I tried to run beside him to get him to move.
Maybe he thinks he’s in trouble, I thought as I tried to keep approaching him. After all, I’d just yelled at him and used a stud chain. Maybe he was confused.
Iron Man stood blinking at me and I stared back, unsure if my treatment of him had been the right thing to do. Slowly, gently, I side-stepped toward him with my hand out, not looking at him and making no sound. (Horses get uneasy when humans make a beeline for them and walk directly at them like a predator would do. It’s always better to zig-zag your way to them instead.)
I put my hand on Iron Man’s neck and scratched him to no response. Ashamed, I realized that while I addressed his behavior earlier, I hadn’t figured out what caused it. I had dealt with a symptom of a problem rather than the problem itself. And as I threw my arms around his neck and buried my face in his mane, I quickly realized what had been the problem.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered to him. “I was crabby with you, baby boy. I rushed to get you into the arena so I could get on to my next task. I didn’t listen. I’m so sorry.”
And he melted. At my words, Iron Man thrust his face into my arms and nuzzled my hands and let me hug and kiss his face all over. I stayed with him for a long time and just held his face close to me, whispering and patting and listening. As my volunteer happily told me as she watched us, “He just melted like butter in a frying pan.”
When I finally walked Iron Man back to his stall, I took the long way and let him eat leaves from one of the trees outside the arena. Instead of hurrying him along in order to get things done more quickly, I let him take his time. And when he walked back like a champ, I took the halter off and spent another minute or two kissing his face and telling him how proud I was of him.
Being burnt out is a part of life. Being tired and having lots of things to do in a short amount of time is inevitable. But stressing out over getting things done rather than slowly, surely taking one thing at a time hurts everyone. And today, it hurt one of my best friends in the world.
By being firm and harsh earlier, I won the battle between Iron Man’s strength and mine and got him to do what I wanted. But by listening to him, by showing him understanding and unconditional compassion, I won back his heart.
And when I looked into those liquid brown eyes of his that shone with love and forgiveness earlier, I knew that his heart is all I ever want to win.