This post is inspired by my Mum’s horse Billy, and an interaction he shared with my 3-year-old son.
Billy is an 11 year old thoroughbred who came to my Mum in 2012. If I’m honest, I’m not sure why she chose him. To me he didn’t look like much. But, my Mum, being the kind person that she is, saw something in him and wanted to take him home. It was a leap of faith. My Mum never having owned a horse before, was now buying a 4 year old TB who in his short, immature life already had under his belt, racing training, a year of turnout and reschooling by his previous owner. Why couldn’t she have chosen a nice, steady, seen it all cob?? But, it was love at first sight for my Mum and he came home for them to begin their life together.
Things began slowly, as all good relationships should. She sought help from experts to help her build a strong bond and be the best she could be for her new found love. Unfortunately, for mum Billy had strong ideas and harboured a great deal of anger compounded with a stubborn streak or so it appeared on the surface.
After several relatively serious falls I begged my mum to sell him. Their relationship had turned sour and I hated seeing her hurt and upset. With my mum out of action after the latest fall, I stepped in to help keep Billy exercised. A light schooling session ended with me on the floor after he quite adamantly informed me he did not wish to canter. My first thought then was that he was trying to tell me “ouch” but I ignored my gut because I was cross at him for hurting my Mum. What a fool!
Billy was sent away to a friend of ours who was building a business training and bringing on horses. She had balls of steel, bags of experience and was a very capable horse woman. However, after several months of work, a spook, a refusal or generally unpredictable behaviour would send her back to square one. She felt she was getting nowhere with him and she was unsure how sellable he was.
Billy moved on to the next person for further expertise and advice, this time a behaviourist in the form of Melanie Watson. This was not the first time Melanie had met Billy as Mum had benefited from her help earlier on in Billy’s life. It was here that the cotton reel finally began to unravel. With Melanie’s years of experience and knowledge she instantly recognised Billy’s behaviour as pain and everything started to make sense. The vets were called in. A history of unexplained, intermittent lameness lead them straight to his hocks and back and a full body scan revealed DJD of the hocks and kissing spine.
Mum’s heart was broken but with her dedication to Billy and the knowledge and support of vets, trainers and physiotherapists this was not the end of their journey together.
This all landed very conveniently at the start of my training in animal physiotherapy and is what made me sure this was a path I had to pursue.
After this journey of discovery I see Billy in a very different light. What was labelled up as badness; resisting his bridle being put on, backing away when trying to mount, were actually very gentle, but in hindsight, very clear ways of him trying to communicate he did not want to be ridden today because it may hurt or he was in fact hurting.
But, what really struck a chord with me was an interaction Billy had with my son in the field one evening.
Having been through all he has experienced with humans, you would expect him to be completely switched off to human interaction and, quite rightly, to have labelled us as “idiots” who don’t understand him. But, actually, he is a very communicative and friendly horse who wants to interact with humans and wants to be heard.
I was in the field picking muck and my 3 year old son was wandering around the field with me carrying his “magic feather” (a big Dumbo fan at the time). Billy being the inquisitive horse he is, came over and very slowly and very gently investigated what my son was doing. Ordinarily, I am very cautious of the horses keeping their distance from my son but I could see something pure in this interaction. There was no fear on either part. The sheer size of a 16.2hh TB next to my 3 year old would have been enough to give most mums the heebie jeebies, but Billy stood with his head low and his neck stretched as far from his feet as possible while my son gently tickled his nose with the “magic feather”.
Beautiful. Enough to bring a tear to the most stone-like of hearts.
This is why I love horses. They never give up on us. And they deserve the same from us.