As we deal with our horses, both as caretakers and trainers, I think it’s important that we not lose sight of equine emotions. They may run deeper than we suspect. A case in point:
Many years ago, when my boys were small, my good friend and neighbor asked if I would like to borrow her elderly, medium-sized pony so that my children would have the opportunity to ride something more size appropriate than being led around on my old, rather overweight gelding. I agreed, and soon Star, a chestnut mare with a coarse head, joined my barn.
Star settled in, but looking back, I believe she was never truly happy with the forced change. She could see and smell and hear her old home where she had once been the matriarch. On my farm, she had my six-year-old, rambunctious, Thoroughbred mare to contend with. Although Flare was mostly well behaved, every now and then, she tried to play with her new pasturemate. At age thirty, Star was in no mood for shenanigans of any sorts. She wanted to eat and rest and be left in peace. She did, however, bond quite nicely with my boarder, a sixteen-year-old large pony.
Admittedly, Star was a bit of a grouch. As I considered her, I didn’t think she was pining for home, but she never seemed truly happy, either. Was this her innate personality or was she missing home? I couldn’t tell.
Three years passed. As with all my horses, Star enjoyed a roomy, immaculately-cleaned stall; daily turnout in a lush pasture; supplemental hay and grain; excellent veterinary and farrier care; candy and treats; fly spray and baths when it was hot; a blanket when it was cold; and a strict routine she could rely on. She had companionship and did very little work. As it turned out, she was not a willing tutor for my boys, but that was okay. They preferred bumping their go-carts across the fields and daredevil races down the lane.
Then, when Star was thirty-three, my pony boarder and Star’s buddy left the barn. Star missed her; that much was clear, and as the days passed, she seemed more and more depressed. The only companion that she’d had on my farm was gone.
I noticed Star looking across the pasture toward her old home more and more. I called Star’s owner and told her that she seemed unhappy and I thought she wanted to come home. A couple weeks passed. I can’t remember, now, what the holdup had been. Maybe my neighbor didn’t have an open stall, or maybe she simply didn’t think the situation was urgent. In any case, Star went downhill quickly. She seemed distressed. I made another call, and my neighbor didn’t delay this time in taking her home.
The next day, my friend called and told me Star had died that night. The old mare had lifted her head and pranced down “her” barn aisle, whinnying, and no one who saw her could have mistaken her joy at returning home.
We are both convinced that she wanted to go home to die.
When it comes to your horse’s emotions, be observant and trust your instincts. I should have reacted faster, and I’m sure if Star could have talked, we would have never moved her from home.