I learned to love and train horses as a teenager before I was paralyzed, and I feel incredibly fortunate to have a stable of them living on our property. The nice lady who owns them does all their care, but I am able to visit as much as I want, and I take full advantage of the privilege. My daily sanity-break involves walking the dog and stopping to visit the horses.
The first time I visited them, they were afraid of me or my power wheelchair. I called and called, but they stood back and stared at me. Finally, I decided to ignore them, and turned so the back of my chair was facing them, against the gate. I leaned back, closed my eyes, and enjoyed the sun. About 10 to 15 minutes later, I could feel hot breath on the top of my head. From then on, they have been very comfortable with me.
I knew that horses are smart, but experiencing them after my disability, at a slower and calmer pace, has made me realize they are far more intelligent than I once thought.
A few years ago, we had a horse that had foundered on grass. She didn’t want to stand up and I could tell by her eyes that she was in a lot of pain. She looked at me as if to ask for help.
“Where does it hurt?” I asked. I know, I’m one of those nut-jobs that speaks to animals as if they understand. But I think sometimes they do. Maybe it’s not the words, but more that they can feel what we mean.
To my amazement, she curled around and touched her back foot with her nose, then looked right at me. I was blown away. Was it a coincidence or did she comprehend? The veterinarian later confirmed that the foot was swollen and very sore, and with diet and medicine she made a full recovery.
The horses may be squabbling with each other, biting and whinnying, but when I approach, they calm down and stop bickering. They seem to recognize they can’t be rough with me and often gently rub my face with theirs.
A couple of weeks ago, a new horse, Rosie, put her head over my shoulder from behind and rubbed her face on mine. Then she rested her head on my chest while I rubbed her face. I noticed her eye, which was looking right into mine, was slowly closing. Her breathing got heavy as her head pressed into my chest, and then her eye closed. She had fallen asleep. I sat there in the sun, with a fast-asleep horse draped over my shoulder, for 10 minutes or more. It was one of those moments you remember forever.
On another occasion, as I wheeled around inside their pasture area, Total, the big, old standardbred former racehorse, walked right over, stopped with his nose close to mine, and stared at me from close range. He leaned down to sniff my feet. Then he did something unexpected: He gently grabbed the toe of my boot and lifted my foot off the foot pedal. He sniffed my legs, and came up to sniff my hands. He gently grabbed my hands with his mouth one at a time, and lifted them.
It dawned on me that he was wondering why I couldn’t move my hands and feet. He had noticed that something was different. I think he was wondering why I didn’t stand and use my hands like other people.
The Daily Visit
“Hi horses!” I holler as I head down from the house. The horses raise their heads to look at me. “How’s the horses today?”
I see they are heading to the gate where they can reach over and get close to me. I wheel up to the gate, turn around to face the sun and swing my cup out of the way, as horses are very inquisitive and first-class drinking-straw thieves. They seem to prefer if you are casual and trusting, so looking the other way and ignoring their approach puts them at ease.
Today my buddy Indy approaches first. He is a super-friendly gelding. I have my back turned, enjoying the sun like usual, when my phone dings. Continuing my ignore-the-horses facade, I start texting as Indy reaches over the gate. I feel his breath down the back of my neck, but I give no reaction. He breathes harder to get my attention, and gets nothing. I feel whiskers on my neck, and ignore him some more, so he ups the ante and reaches over my shoulder to see what I’m doing. He’s very interested in the cell phone, wondering what I’ve got.
“It’s a phone. I’m texting with my friend,” I say.
I keep texting while talking to Indy, and his nose keeps blocking the phone as he tries to see what I’m doing. He is totally focused on what’s in my hands. I wonder to myself if he has important horse-stuff to get to.
“I’ll take a selfie of us,” I say, opening the camera app. “Say cheese!”
Indy and I look at the phone. The camera fires and takes a picture. Indy even looks like he’s smiling. It makes me wonder if horses have a sense of humor. I sit there, rubbing his face, and he rubs his cheek against mine. I gently kiss his muzzle, and he turns and gently mouths my cheek, as if to reciprocate. I’m surprised that a 1,200 pound animal would try to mimic me, but I go with it.
In this trying time we are going through, we all need our sanity breaks. That makes my time spent with these gentle giants even more soothing.