What the horse knows No: 2

5 03 2017

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Friendship between species is special. Sheranni with Rebecca.

Life Lesson No 2: Friendship

For most people, life without friends would be a treacherous place. Social species need others not simply to survive, but also to thrive. Our friends and companions enrich our lives in ways that can surprise us. A close friend once cycled from Kent to Devon because he missed me. Stamina aside, we value friends who show loyalty and kindness and with whom we can be at our best and worst.

Horses are especially skilled at friendship. As herd animals, they need to live in groups in order to feel safe, and like us their capacity for friendship goes beyond survival. Friendship for horses is as much a matter of preference as it is for humans and horses display their sociability in myriad ways. Some bond for life with one companion while others might easily make new friends wherever they happen to live. We have a pony who is close buddies with a goat.

Sheranni happens to be a highly sociable horse and when he was younger I used to play a game with him to try to get him to ‘unfriend’ me. This was in the days when he used to come into a stable at night and if the horse in the neighbouring stable got too interested, Sheranni would direct mean looks at the intruder. If I happened to be in the way of the grrr-get-lost gesture, Sheranni would immediately switch to being charming. The first time this happened I was amazed at the speed at which he could navigate between the two emotional extremes. Back and forth his expression would go: nasty-nice-nasty-nice. Smile-scowl-smile-scowl. No matter how quick I was, he was never caught out and he was never neutral either. I like to think that this is because we were such fast friends he wouldn’t or couldn’t unfriend me.

Not a game I would recommend with one stallion I knew whose super-mean gestures told me to give him a king-size berth. I led him out to his field a few times and it was like taking a cobra for a walk. One day he lunged over his stable door and grabbed a young woman by the neck. Her injury was shocking, as if someone had pressed a hot iron against her skin. Even more shocking was the seemingly random nature of his attack. She had not spoken to him or looked at him as she passed. She had simply been in the way.

Not long after this incident, I happened to walk past his stable. Normally, he would be hanging over the door, snaking in his beautiful, venomous way. The stallion wasn’t there. From my position, I could see that he was inside and, with a quickening in my stomach, that he was not alone. Another young woman was grooming him. She smiled up at me. ‘I just love this horse,’ she said. ‘When I come, I really love to spend time with him.’ The stallion was at ease, his head low with a soft and dreamy expression in his eye. It was the most relaxed I had ever seen him.

Over the years I’ve often thought about this scene. The young woman just happened to be someone who was born with Downs Syndrome. Of course, this made no difference to the stallion just as it made no difference to him that the young woman he attacked just happened to be a qualified horse professional. He preferred the young woman who wanted to spend some quiet time with him. Most people were too scared of him to try, and that meant he was condemned to a lonely life. It was incredibly moving to witness the tenderness between him and the young woman who trusted him and who had his best interests at heart.

We currently work with another young woman who also just happened to be born with Downs Syndrome. She is shy and has learning difficulties. She also recognises that friendship with animals is incredibly special and that horses respect all kinds of people.

A short time ago, she played her own game with Sheranni by taking his rope when she thought no one was watching and inviting him to partner with her. He moved so sweetly. They were completely connected and synchronised. It was one of those moments when my best friend surprised me, as if he had slipped off to dance with a professional.