It was towards the end of my morning, perhaps 45 minutes before it was time to feed the horses, when I heard the words.
I had taken my oldest gelding up to the breezeway to take off the three-day-old wrappings I’d placed on his hoof to heal an abscess. One of my volunteers and her three children stood a little bit away, watching me struggle with the bootie and the wraps, sticky with ichthammol.
“What is she doing, momma?” I heard one of her daughters ask.
“It looks like she’s taking the bandage off his foot,” she replied. “How would you like to do what she’s doing? She’s a horse mommy. She takes care of all of the horses here.”
I smiled at her words. I’m still smiling at them.
I’ve often given thought to what it might be like to have kids – human kids – of my own someday, although admittedly I’ve stopped wondering whether or not I genuinely want them after adding a wild kitten to our household last week.
But sometimes it escapes me that I already am a mommy, and not just to two ornery cats.
At the ranch, I make sure each of our herd of 33 has a clean stall and clean water and clean feeders. I know who’s allergic to alfalfa and who’s allergic to Bermuda and who should get less food at lunchtime and who should be getting a little bit more.
I make sure that they don’t get too many treats before mealtime. I make sure Sunny, the baby, gets next to none.
I know where each one likes to eat and where each one likes to be scratched and where I can find each one napping during the afternoon. I groom and bathe where necessary. I know who likes to be rinsed off and who just might attempt to run me over if I come near them with the hose.
I can be standing anywhere on the ranch and know which of the 33 just whinnied, and why.
Instead of scheduling soccer practice, I’m in charge of the turn out schedule so that each horse gets the proper amount of exercise depending on their age, medical problems, history, and stamina. I try to see that the ones who like to be stimulated are worked with on a regular basis.
I know their different personalities and who gets along and who would get along and who should never get within ten feet of each other under any circumstances.
I kiss boo boos. I doctor scrapes, sores, and blemishes. I try to make them better and get vets involved when I can’t. I have – for several summers now – regularly and casually and willingly picked maggots out of various spots on one of my geldings who gets summer sores for six months out of the year.
I put medicine in runny eyes and hurting hooves and protesting mouths. I know who won’t take a needle to the neck and who will fight to the death rather than take a syringe to the mouth and who will smell medicine in a mash a mile a way. I have taken handfuls of mash and hand fed it into stubborn mouths. Once I got mad and took handfuls of mash and just shoved it into one of my geldings’ face till he ate his supplements.
I know with a single glance when something is wrong. I have known the cold terror of watching a sick horse while the vet speeds to the ranch. I have known the helplessness of wanting to do more but being unable to fix a problem on my own.
Likewise, I know with a single glance who just stole Solo’s hay or who just knocked over the food cart or who just made Jazz squeal at the top of his lungs by biting him on the butt. I holler at bickering horses to knock it off without looking up but instantly break up fights when necessary. I do time-outs. I tell the troublemakers to think about their actions. (They tell me, in turn, that I need a straitjacket.)
I discipline, sometimes sternly. I can make a 1,200-pound Thoroughbred back up without stopping for 30 feet with nothing but a lead rope, my hand on his chest, and a ringing, commanding tone. I can make a similarly powerful ex racer mare do laps in the arena with a mere wave of my arm and a sudden “Cht!” Several of the people who come to the ranch can’t get our ornery Miniature horse – Min – to walk back to his stall after he’s been allowed to wander throughout the morning. One word from me and a firm poke on the butt for good measure, and he races off home without protest (usually).
I know when the horses misbehave for the hell of it or because they want – crave – more attention. And I’ve learned that reacting to the latter kind of misbehavior with love and tenderness goes a much, much farther way.
I bribe and scold and threaten, often all in one breath. I can tell the difference between stubbornness and pain and the varying degrees of uncertainty and downright fear. I soothe and comfort and console. I hug and pat and kiss worried foreheads.
I notice achievements and differences and strides in character and temperament. I reward and I praise and I am forever whispering the words, “I’m so proud of you.”
Every single day, I make mistakes. Every single day, I learn something new. And every single day, those horses never give up on me.
The 33 of them step on my feet, nip at my arms, aim kicks at my legs if they’re in a really foul mood, throw me into gates in their excitement, tear food out of my hands, dump out their water tubs after I’ve filled them, rip my clothing, dribble bran and slobber in my hair, knock over mashes I’ve made, and take every ounce of energy I have and then some. And through it all there is more laughter and joy and happiness than I could have ever asked for in my life.
Each and every one of them is a part of me. And I love each and every one of them with everything I have.
Horse mommy, I was called today.
I don’t think I want any other title as long as I live.