Many years ago when I was in my 20’s, I was doing work experience in western NSW. I spent some time with an old bloke who had about 25 ponies. He had a contract with the local government to clean out water channels along remote country roads using his horses. For six months of the year he and his ponies would be busy dredging the channels to remove silt, carcasses and weeds. My friend lived in a tin shack on some scrubby land he owned, while the ponies lived in a single herd, free to roam the nearly 800 hectare pasture.
He had them pretty tame and they would gallop up to him when he whistled. It was a sight to see 25 horses galloping at full speed towards you. The first couple of times, it made me wish I were on the outside of the fence in case their brakes failed.
My friend and I would sometimes saddle up a couple of ponies and ride around the flat, dry country to check fences, water or just watch the birds and wildlife. How the horses tolerated the saddles we used is a testament to their amazing nature. They were more like medieval devices designed to extract confessions from suspected witches during the inquisition. My bum still hurts just thinking about them.
I usually rode the same horse on these outings. It was a nice little mare called Eve. However, she had a strong tendency to constantly want to head back to the other horses. Even when riding with my friend, Eve was drawn to the herd.
For awhile I didn’t mention this and just maintained enough forward to block her from thinking too hard about her mates. Then one ride when we had stopped to have a cuppa (tea), Doug asked me how I was getting along with Eve? I told him she was a super pony and I really liked her, but she was always fixated on getting back to the herd.
“Uh,” Doug said. “Wonder why? So why don’t you let her?”
“But Doug, if I let her go back to the herd won’t it just make her more determined next time?” I asked.
“Maybe. But aren’t you curious what’s so important to her about the other horses?”
I thought it was a strange statement. What’s so mysterious about separation anxiety?
Doug told me to let her go and see what happens.
“She won’t get you in trouble. Just steer around the trees and slow down just as you get to the gully. Then on the other side let her go again. There’s fences all around the property, so she won’t go too far.”
After we finished our tea and saddled up again, we rode towards the far boundary. I kept a loose rein on Eve as we walked along. Soon she started to slow her feet, but I pushed her forward to keep up with Doug’s horse. Then she gradually veered to the right. I sat quietly and didn’t interfere. Eve walked a huge semi-circle until we were facing the other way, in the direction of the camp.
Eve’s walk livened up a little, but it wasn’t rushing – just more freedom. She handled the fallen logs, the gully and the huge stands of blackberry bushes without changing rhythm. Eve didn’t even seem to notice that Doug and his horse were way behind in the opposite direction.
We had been walking for about twenty-five minutes, when I heard a call from one of the herd horses. Eve picked up a slow jog. Within four or five minutes I could see the herd off to our right through the trees. At first I thought Eve hadn’t seen them because she kept straight with her ears pricked forward. So I picked up a soft feel on the right rein to point her towards the horses. Now I knew she had seen them, but she didn’t seem interested. As soon as I released the rein, she wielded in a left arc to be on the same path as before. Where the hell was she going?
Shortly after passing the herd, Eve began to trot faster. Soon she was cantering a good pace. There was nothing in her path, so I saw no danger in letting her explore her thoughts. As she picked up her pace I realized how straight she was moving. It was as if she had an important plan that just had to be carried out with precision. I hadn’t a clue where she was going or why, but I was reminded that Doug told me “… why don’t you let her?”
Eventually, I saw the boundary fence coming up. I had hoped that Eve saw it too because she didn’t seem to be slowing up. As the fence got closer I began to argue with myself whether or not I should pick up the reins and stop her. However, it wasn’t necessary because within about twenty metres or so Eve slowed to a trot and then a walk.
She continued straight, as if expecting the fence to give way. Then she chested the fence and stopped. Eve’s gaze was fixed into the distance. I didn’t know what she was looking at, but it seemed that the object could have been across the ocean. In between her puffing, she gave a couple of calls and waited for an answer, but none came.
I sat there and waited. And waited. And waited some more. Eve stared off into the distance for perhaps ten or fifteen minutes, then turned and picked at a clump of grass. I dismounted and we walked back to camp.
Eventually Doug appeared and asked how we went. I told him about the trip and how Eve stopped at the fence and just looked.
“You know, she has done that ever since I had her, which is maybe six years now,” Doug said. “I don’t know why she does it. But something really important to that mare is somewhere out there in the distance. I’ll probably never know what’s so important, but I wish I could fix it for her.”
It was at that time, I knew I didn’t really understand horses as well as I thought I did. I had been around a lot of horses. I had helped a lot of horses. Yet I still come across ones I can’t work out. I thought being with the herd was what was important to Eve. I figured her problem was just common, garden variety, every day separation anxiety. But I was wrong. I arrogantly assumed wrong.
It’s easy for me to think I know something about horses when I’ve started and re-educated so many. People come to clinics and thank me for my help and keep coming back for more. People follow me on Facebook and buy my Walt and Amos books and write such nice things about me. It’s not hard to start to believe the nice things people say are true. I begin to think I know what I’m doing. But then a horse like Eve comes along once in awhile that makes me realize I’m a bloody idiot.
Thank goodness for the Eve’s of the world.