Equine-imity

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    Sometimes bonding begins through the length of a nylon rope.

    I was trying to convince a young horse I had just purchased that it was safe to walk into our stock trailer. This particular horse had been born and raised on the same farm and had never been loaded into a trailer. So there we stood that day, each on the end of this string pulled tight, like children playing "telephone." While we were only a few feet apart, it was still a long-distance connection. I was a human trying to think like a horse, he was a horse trying to figure out this human.

    As I held the colt’s head in the direction of trailer door, I was reminded that when you have your horse on a rope, he’s "got" you as much as you’ve "got" him. I could pull his head a little, but he could pull my arm out of the socket. The prospect of dismemberment is a powerful motivator for creative communication. But the real motivation went beyond self-preservation.

    People who love animals are a little like backyard explorers. They seem to possess a sort of xenophilia such that, rather than fearing the new and different, they invite it. Animals graciously offer us the gift of access and interpretation. They live inside skin completely different from our own and are able to experience the world in ways we are not equipped to. When I am out with my horses and they suddenly perk their ears and raise their heads, I wonder what it is I’m missing. I realize that they have a foreign awareness that I can learn from. When they stand at the gate of their corral in the morning and intently watch me about my daily chores, I realize that they are curious about me, as well. This is the intrigue: that through shared otherness, we become aware of a new landscape and of what lives there. Like learning to ride a bike, we could learn to coordinate our perceptions and move along to new places.

    It is so surprising when we strike that balance. We can’t help but wonder, "How did that happen?" Flooded with exhilaration and reveling in the freedom of movement, we look for ways to repeat the experience. That was how I felt when my new colt finally took those first tentative steps that said, "I am trying to trust you." It should have been impossible for so much horse to be in the trailer without any of his feet on board yet. But he was stretching his neck in and bopping me gently with his muzzle as if to say, "Okay, I’m giving you a chance to tell me why I should pack myself into this tin can!" Such an honor. Like the startling and unmerited honor of a butterfly suddenly landing on your shoulder. Why should he pick my shoulder at this moment? And you hope that you unwittingly possess some admirable quality that the butterfly sensed. It gives you hope.

    I met the colt’s advance with an enthusiastic pat, and reassured him that he was the most wonderful thing in the world. Soon, he took those first steps that said, "I’m trying to trust you." When the rest of the horse followed the front feet into the trailer at last, I puffed my chest and looked around at my husband and the previous owners. I admit that I looked on the outside like I was saying, "Look what I just did!" But on the inside I was saying, "Huh! How’d that happen?" And I was so grateful to the horse.

    Perhaps that is the root of the bond that begins when we bring a pet into our lives, or just encounter an animal in its natural home. Animals and people are so different from each other that we can remain eternally curious. And yet, we are all part of the same world. When I walk in the woods and see only animal footprints, I feel a warming sense of community. The footprints appear for a time in the same places I walk. Then they disappear into places I cannot go. Then I go home to my pet and ask some of the questions I wondered in the woods. My horses keep me in touch with my own more basic nature. They reassure me that I am not entirely domesticated. Like them, I might still run for the hills if the gate is left open and there is nothing to hold me. Instead, we head for the hills together from time to time. And then we come home.

    Sometimes. And then there are the times when my animals offer me humor. There are the times I have been daydreaming of a soothingly rhythmic trot along scented, verdant fields, but have to face the reality of a superior and conspiratorial cluster of horses standing in the corner of the pasture. I can hear them sniggering to each other, "How close should we let her get before we take off again?" I can see them quivering with laughter as I propel my soft, pink blobbiness hopefully toward them, halters behind my back…as if they didn’t know. I mollify my disappointment by remembering that this is good for my cardiovascular system. And I can’t help being enchanted by the beauty of flying hooves and manes, even if it is from a distance. Even if it is from the corner where the horses had just been standing. For animals possess a disarming array of tools of endearment.

    The challenge of getting close enough to slip on a halter, or of enticing the horse to come home with me, fosters an "in-tuneness" that teaches me about relationship. The long-distance connection I hope to make teaches me about respect. We both have to be in this together. My own particular "pets" trot into my life, toss their heads and give me just a few seconds to decide whether I’ll let them carry me away to better parts of myself.

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    Michelle Hazard
    Michelle M. Hazard, R.N., is an Emergency Room nurse, working in an Eau Claire, Wisc., hospital. She lives with her family, horses and cats on 163 acres in beautiful Jackson County, Wisc. Copyright © 2006 Michelle M. Hazard. All rights reserved

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