Building a Relationship
On November 3rd, 2018, I drove to Oregon to buy Navani and bring her home. Though I’d been told she trailer loads, this turned out not to be the case: it took a grueling three hours to convince her to board. She’d step up on the ramp with her two front hooves and then fly backwards, rearing up, always coming within fractions of an inch of smashing her skull on the trailer roof.
The deed was only finally accomplished with the use of a lip chain, a much harsher method than I would have ever wanted to employ, and not the greatest start to our relationship. If she hadn’t loaded then, if she had continued to fight until the chain drew blood, if she had to be dragged onboard, I would have asked for my check back and left with an empty trailer. Any horse who fights that hard not to go with me is not my horse. I’m certain it didn’t help that the entire family was there, one of them practically sobbing into her mane as the bill of sale was signed.
As it was, the sedative administered to last her the entire trip home had worn off before we even pulled out of the driveway. Thankfully, once she was on board, she rode quietly. When we unloaded her that evening, again she rushed backwards out of the trailer and it was only my desperate grip on the rope that kept her from hitting her head, but it was done. She was home. I had a horse.
Navani belonged to the same family since she was a yearling. Every formative experience she ever had was with them. Her life has revolved around them. From day one, I was less her new friend than her captor. I spent hours in her stall, talking to her and grooming her, giving her treats, trying to convince her that though things were going to be different for her now, different doesn’t mean bad. Indoctrinating her into the cult of me. Fifteen days later, we had our family photo session for our “look we got a horse” holiday card. In many of the photos, her expression is concerned, her body language tense, ready to flee. I chose one where she merely appeared alert, joining the proud tradition of cards that paint a slightly-too-rosy tint over the facts.
All horses are individuals, of course, but there are shared traits among species, breed, and gender. Ask an equestrian which they prefer, geldings or mares, and be prepared to pull up a chair and sit awhile. I don’t know how much of it is true and how much is misogyny disguised as horsemanship. “Geldings do what they are told, mares are challenging.” “Mares are crazy, I’d never want a mare.” “Geldings are consistent. They’re the same every day. Mares go in heat, they change.” “Geldings are dull; a mare can give you more. You get the trust of a mare and she’ll give you everything. She’ll walk through fire for you.”
Getting that trust takes time. In late December, Navani realized she forgot to give me anything for Christmas and so to commemorate how she felt about our special relationship, gave me a hard fall. I hit the ground so resoundingly that my friend heard the thud from across the arena. I struggled to do anything but lay flat on my back for a week; when I moved I had the distinct feeling my right side was caving in. Three weeks later, I was back in the saddle.
At her first bodywork session (basically horse massage), the bodyworker asked me what my favorite thing about Navani was, and I really struggled to answer. Our relationship was challenging. It took weeks to convince her to do something as simple as entering the crossties to be groomed. Just like the trailer, she’d back up and threaten to rear. She took food aggressively. On walks, she’d yank me around like the proverbial 1100 pound gorilla who eats whatever she wants, mash my feet, and knock me around. She’d give me as little of her attention as she conceivably could when on the ground and while riding. She was squirrely to ride, weaving around, being avoidant, and dangerous when she’d get scared and take charge. She made it very clear that in a life or death situation, my survival was inconsequential. “My favorite thing? Her, ah..little goatee,” I managed weakly.
For a good long while, it was less a dream come true than hard, awful, and hideously expensive, with enough hits of brilliant, wonderful, best-thing-I’ve-ever-done dopamine to keep me going. For months, we’d been working on sitting trot, wherein the division of labor is such that she jogs around with me on her back and I just try not to bounce around too much. (And now you know why I buy my horse massages: guilty conscience.) So often in these sessions she felt like a cannon ready to go off; the gentle calf squeeze that signals the transition from walk to trot would cause her to react like I’d spurred her with a Jackie Chan kick because we needed to escape a jet-powered T-Rex. She would launch into a rushy, shitty trot like she was urgently needed in orbit and didn’t have time for any outside opinions. During many of these trots, she felt tense, she would lock up mentally*, occasionally grabbing the bit and zagging out from underneath me, a sickening rollercoaster-like sensation where I would have a moment to hope that my body would continue to travel in the same direction as hers, either naturally or by sheer force of will. There were enough incidents to make me apprehensive about riding. “This is a hard season” the horsepeople said. “It’ll be better in a couple of months.”
What I’ve learned about horses from a year of being around horsepeople:
Fall: “The weather starts getting crisp, the wind picks up. That makes horses go crazy.”
Winter: “It’s cold, they’re pent up, getting less exercise. That makes horses go crazy.”
Spring: “Hormones are surging, it’s new grass, full of sugar. That makes horses go crazy.”
Summer: “Flies are biting, there’s more activity on the trails. That makes horses go crazy.”
As a horse person, you start obsessing about the weather, the conditions that might help or hinder your ride, how much time you have before the sun sets. You become, almost against your will, an outdoorsperson.
If you poke around in the horse world, often when someone is having issues with a horse, they’ll refer to “bitting up”; i.e. using a harsher or more severe mouthpiece to apply more force to the horse, to assert more control. Every person who owns and rides a horse will find their own line with regards to equipment. I have never felt comfortable using a bit, and for her part, Navani would resist being bridled but felt very comfortable taking the bit and going as she pleased. On my evaluation visit, I watched their trainer ride her and noted two things in particular: that she was being ridden with a lot of contact with the bit, and her lower lip was flapping, an indicator that she was nervous or uncomfortable or both.
Coercing my horse to open her mouth so I could put a piece of metal in there to assert control doesn’t feel good. I don’t think it felt good to her, either, or she wouldn’t toss her head up to avoid it. I’m also not a huge fan of a lot of contact with the mouth, especially if it’s not necessary, and in mounted archery, I’ll have no contact with her mouth as my hands will be busy with a bow and arrows.
So around the eight month mark, I started using a bitless crossunder bridle, and incidentally, that was when things started to take a turn for the better. From the very first time, she went so well in it that feels unnatural to use anything else. Instead of fighting the bridle, she now puts her nose in when it’s offered to her. She responds to lighter aids. She’s less spooky and snorty on our trail rides. She’s less spooky in general, less likely to duck and run, more likely to listen to me when I tell her that she has no cause for concern. She and I feel more like a team. I recently convinced her to load into a trailer in under a minute.
I don’t give sole credit to the bridle but I do think that its use dovetailed beautifully with the months of consistent work and training I’d been doing, including all the trot work. We’d done all that trotting for myriad reasons: to help her build fitness and protect her back, to school speeds within the trot, to help me regain confidence after the fall and prepare for the mounted archery clinic I attended, and, as always, to help me become a better rider** and better partner to Navani. I have hope someday we’ll be able to go completely bridleless.
Things are clicking for her in other areas, too; the other people who handle her have all come to me separately recently to tell me that they can tell I’ve been working with Navani on her ground manners because she’s not barging them around anymore, either. I’ve been talking to her the whole time. I think it’s only recently that she’s started to believe I’m worth hearing.
I don’t own enough land to keep my horse at my home. Navani would mow down my back yard to the dirt within a few days, only the high rock content of the soil would keep it from turning into a mud pit, and my neighbors with the roosters and turkeys would finally get a taste of their own medicine as she’d blast calls across the neighborhood, looking for other horses. After she got bored of destroying my ornamental plants, she’d knock out at least one of the supports for my raised deck and then knock down my fence and rampage about the greenbelt. I would love to be able to wake up and look out of my window and see my horse but it’s not feasible now, which means I have to board her.
When you board a horse at a barn, your experience with your horse is intrinsically tied to the other people boarding there. It’s rare to have the facilities to yourself, and if the other people around are inconsiderate or unpleasant, it negatively influences your horse interactions because instead of quietly building a bond with your animal like you want, you’re forced to make small talk with an asshole. I’m so grateful every day that all the other boarders are such wonderful people who support one another like family. If the barn environment had been different, if people had been snide or gossipy, I don’t know if I would have made it through the hardest parts, when I’m already fighting the Seattle drizzle and depression and grief and daylight savings and the kind of cold that chills me to the bone and mud and her attitude and my attitude and…
Because this was a need-to-sell not a want-to-sell situation, Navani’s former owners are still heavily invested in her in a way that I find unsettling and boundary-violating. We conducted a transaction. Why does it follow that we have to be in each other’s lives after that? They’ve sent messages asking me to post more photos of her, they’ve tried to befriend my friends, there’s been an endless stream of borderline condescending or insulting comments or training suggestions. “Her weight actually looks good!” “Navani told me she wants you to buy her such-and-such.” Aside from being annoyed that she is intimating that she’s having conversations with my horse, the audacity of telling me the things she thinks I should buy by couching them as my horse’s suggestion!
There’s also a previous rider who until very recently still had a crowdfunding page up to buy my horse, referring to her as her heart horse and her soulmate. She friend requested me on social media almost immediately after I purchased Navani, and I just let the request hang because although it felt petty and chickenshit to directly refuse my recent livestock acquisition’s soulmate’s desperate plea to stay in touch across the miles, I also didn’t feel like I owed this complete stranger access to my entire life, which I write very sincerely and hypocritically, publicly on the Internet. She followed Navani on Instagram for a time, “liking” all the photos except the ones I was also in. Which is fine of course; we’re not friends.
I have really struggled to reconcile the things they have told me about their experience with her and my experience with her. For example, they claimed online that she is such a compassionate horse that once when her rider became unbalanced, she fell to her knees to prevent her from falling off. But they also told me in person that if I was going to hit her, I should just not hit her on the face, because it makes her rear. Even now with our vastly improved relationship, I cannot imagine this horse ever falling to her knees to protect me, which seems unfair to me since I don’t hit her at all much less hit her on so many places of her body that I can figure out which places really upset her.
Owning a horse is horrendously expensive. Less so than having a child in daycare, but nothing to sneeze at. Monthly board, farrier visits every six to eight weeks, tack purchasing, maintenance (this includes having a saddle fitter out a couple times a year to adjust and flock), and replacement, chiropractic, acupuncture, bodywork, feed supplements, unguents and creams for skin soothing and hair conditioning, sprays to repel flies and thrush and dust, special tools to scrape crap out of hooves and parasites off of legs, nets to control food intake, vet visits (all with an extra “showing up” fee that you can only avoid by hauling your horse in, which would necessitate owning a truck and a trailer and all their attendant maintenances) for shots, tooth care, bi-annual turd analysis and any lameness or illness needs, lessons and clinics…
I haven’t even gotten into stuff for me yet, but a decent pair of winter riding pants and a new pair of paddock boots to replace the ones that are currently falling apart after two years of use will set me back over three hundred dollars. Plus now I need a new helmet since I hit my head on my most recent fall and safety dictates that a helmet is only good for one impact. Navani is jet black because she is a black hole for every dollar I’ve ever thought about having.
My first year with a horse has flown by, and the difference between the horse she was then and the horse she is today in both temperament and condition is as stark as night and day. The changes in me have been nearly as radical. I can’t wait to see where we are at this time next year.
*Pretty much exactly what my December accident looked like, except I was consistently saying turn left…turn left…TURN LEFTTURNLEFTFORTHELOVEOFGODTURNLE–
**My next goal is to become a strong enough rider to be able to do one of the Ride Egypt vacations, but as of publication, Navani’s canter is still unbalanced and a bit scary to ride so it’s not something I’ve tried much. It’s a big dream.