We found him at a horse barn in Suffolk. There were about 25 horses all waiting to be fed. The feed buckets were hung along the fence about 10 feet apart, and the horses were then let in to eat. They all knew which was theirs and started eating. The horse at the first bucket carried himself with arrogance. His breed, Saddlebred, have extra vertebrae in their neck and naturally stand with their heads held elegantly high. When he finished his feed he just confidently moved the next horse out of his way and finished whatever was left in that bucket. Right on down the whole fence line with zero confrontation. The Alpha.
Horses are herd animals. In the natural world, they are prey. Their survival depends on staying together as a protective unit. Much like the military, they have to act through a chain of command without time for questioning. Because these powerful 1,000-pound animals don’t fight predators, they always choose flight. They peacefully graze on grass and flee from danger. The Alpha decides when.
For readers who’ve never developed a relationship with a horse but maybe have with a dog, I’ll try to contrast. Dogs (and I always have one) are as the saying goes, our best friend. Some people aren’t that nice to their dogs and the dog is still faithful and devoted. But in their natural environment, dogs aren’t prey. Horses are and therefore by nature they’re cautious. They’re not unconditionally devoted. They work with us. If a horse accepts you as his leader, he will literally run when asked until his heart gives out. Horses are workers, task oriented, but they’re always cautious, always aware. We have to earn their trust, their willingness to work with us and to follow our lead.
This is a bit more difficult to establish with Alpha horses. They aren’t playing a role. They really see the world through the eyes and heart of a leader. That’s not what they’re doing, it’s who they are. So for them to accept one of us as worthy of leading them, it takes a mutual understanding, which doesn’t happen naturally. It has to be earned with time and patience and calm persistence.
At the barn where I chose to keep him, there are about 100 horses on a few hundred acres. The other owners at our barn cover a wide range from those who do barn work to help pay their boarding costs to those with plenty of wealth who clean their own stalls and push their wheelbarrows. All good helpful folks with a love for these wonderful animals.
When I first came to the barn, I was a bit puzzled that quite a few of the owners didn’t ride at all. They were responsible caring people but they didn’t even ride. I didn’t understand. Now I do. Many days we’ve just gone for a walk together.
One day last April, we went for one of our walks with him wearing his comfortable familiar halter. As we turned a corner, there was a man standing about 50 yards away and the horse was alerted, ears up. I spoke and calmed him and walked him to the man so he would see there was nothing to fear. I hugged his neck for additional reassurance. When I finally stopped hugging, the man, the veterinarian, told me to step back a bit because after the injection, he is just going to fall. I did. He did. As I walked away, halter in hand, I could hear the backhoe start up to dig the deep hole.
In the natural order of a full life, our parents and our animals often endure things that teach us there are conditions worse than the finality of death. Philosophically, that’s correct but Major and I were together well over 20 years and it still feels like something is missing, like a permanent void, way down deep.
Thanks for listening.