BY SUSAN PEIRCE
My beloved Prince came to me as a most treasured gift. He was enormously powerful—an athlete who had already had more than his fair share of show miles, trailer rides, bent lines, combinations, and lineups.
The first time I groomed him, he bit me. It was defensive, and followed with an exhale and expectation that I would beat him in retaliation. Instead, I cried. Yes, it hurt a lot, but the majority of my tears were for him and his pain.
We learn an awful lot from our equine partners in the saddle. In my Prince’s case, it was to ride him forward through the lines and soften slightly the last two strides. He was a no nonsense professional who expected me to be focused and ride every stride. He gave nothing away for free. He had an intolerance for anything that would interrupt our training, and once lunged aggressively at a bunny that innocently hopped through the corner of the ring while we were jumping. The many hard miles that had preceded our partnership required that he warm up slowly prior to going to work. He was competitive (others might say cranky), and I learned to keep my distance from other horses in my under-saddle classes lest he try to eliminate the competition as he would a rabbit.
But the most important things that I learned about my great horse were on the ground. He had been horribly mistreated in the cross ties, groomed and tacked roughly, frequently struck in the face…repeatedly hit over his eye when he reacted. He bears telltale signs of the abuse by way of faint scarring over his right eye and crushed occipital fragments. His emotional wounds were many and deep. We jointly worked to lessen them with every interaction. We built our relationship slowly with a groom box, root beer barrels, and multiple visits to his stall that came without any expectation other than to check on him and say hello. A conversation of the interested. Genuine devotion.
I filled our early interactions with lots of soft brushes, gentle touch and respect. I was careful not to accidentally violate the fragility of what began as a tenuous friendship. He transformed from disinterested and mechanical to affectionate, loving, and demonstratively engaged.
Today we are the best of friends, while I no longer even hack him, not because I don’t want to, but because it is not something that he needs or wants. I still miss the power of his stride, the connection with his massive gait, and the assurance that he would take care of me over any fence, short or long. More importantly, we both enjoy the ritual of grooming which he now relishes. Rather than strike or bite, he tenderly grooms me back, smells my hair, and nuzzles my neck. He knows the very second that my boots hit the farm even when I am out of sight, and looks for me with expectation.
Regardless of the circumstances, I greet him intimately and would never dream of walking by without acknowledging him, my friend.
My sweet Prince has taught me that horsemanship is partnership, that partnership is relationship…and that the very essence of true love is vulnerability. Perhaps the most cherished gift that my dear friend has given me is the profundity that true horsemanship is giving without taking, and that the bond of partnership becomes sweeter once expectation is redefined as meeting his needs and taking care of them.
Susan Peirce is the President and Founder of Red Bucket Equine Rescue, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. With ex-show horses significantly contributing to the high risk unwanted horse population, Peirce is devoted to raising awareness, changing the rhetoric, and encouraging responsible retirement for our most trusted partners. Learn more about Red Bucket at www.redbucketrescue.org.