I may be biased (okay, so I am totally biased), but my baby horse is the kindest youngster I’ve had the pleasure of working with.
No, he’s not the smartest, by a long shot. That would be Rose, a skewbald mare I schooled with attractive leopardy ink spots and a fantastically wavy, feathery mane. Rose was either born knowing the aids or just had the most unbelievable understanding of pressure and release I’ve ever come across. Her lameness issues stunted her training, which is a small tragedy because she could have done advanced dressage, easy peasy. Nor is Thunder the most laid-back – Chrome takes the cake there; the first time I rode him, I only realised that he’d never been ridden before when I asked for a lope and got a handstand instead. He’s not the easiest; that would be a toss-up between Chrome, Rose, and my favourite stallion, Reed. He’s not even the most responsive. He’s just… kind.
I’ve been working with this horse since he hit the ground and have been looking after him all his life. In fact, nobody else even led him until he was six months old, and up until his backing I think I had all of one lesson with him. And yet I still haven’t seen him mean, spiteful or lazy towards humans. He could be bossy with the other young colts he lived with until he was gelded, but that was it. Sure, he’s kicked out a few times on the lunge in the direction of the whip when he’s frustrated or annoyed, and it’s not like he’s frantically obeyed every aid I’ve given him. He is a horse, after all. But Thunder is that dream horse that most people try to paint every horse into being: the horse that is truly always trying his best, the horse that only ever disobeys out of fear or pain or misunderstanding, the horse that does not have one mean bone in his body.
Even the best horses get wilful or stubborn. When she’s not in the mood, even my beloved Skye, who has been with me for almost ten years and is one of the most game and generous horses I know, can dig in her toes and say she won’t. Many horses can actually be spiteful just for the sake of being spiteful (these are the ones who take advantage of you around every corner).
But not Thunder.
Thun has been plenty naughty in his life and earned a lot of discipline for everything from chewing his reins to having no respect for personal space to nipping hands and arms when he was still a colt. He’s bucked, but only out of shock and confusion. He’s bolted, but only out of fear. He’s even refused to go forward, but only out of not understanding. But at the gist of it, this guy really just wants to do everything he can to make you happy.
I won’t easily forget the time that my cinch came loose mid-canter on an outride, sending saddle and rider crashing to the ground. Thun, within sight of his home paddock, did a lightning 180 and came back for me. He was only just three years old and so scared I could see the whites of his eyes as he stood there staring down at me, but he still came back.
He couldn’t have been much older than eighteen or twenty months when he stood in a squirrel hole and, for want of a more equestrian term, twisted his ankle. I still remember how he hobbled up to me and gave me a big, sad, blame-free look before planting his head in my chest and asking mommy, just please make it better. Even pain has never made him lash out. You could poke needles into this horse until he bled, he still would just stand there and let you do what you wanted. When he was sedated for his gelding surgery, he gave me a somewhat confused, dopey look, then just leaned his head against my body. This is weird, mommy, but you’re here so it’s okay.
Yesterday, I was helping out one of my sister’s friends who wanted to learn to ride. Arwen (well-schooled, responsive Arwen) knew she could get away with dragging her toes and refusing to trot, so I gave up on her and put the girl on Thunder. She did her best, but had only been riding for a week so she mixed her aids a bit and didn’t make a whole lot of sense to him, but you could just see the concentration in his eyes as he tried to understand what she wanted. Bucking? Didn’t even cross his mind. He just bent his head, fixed his eyes on the floor and did what she wanted. Willingly. To the best of his ability.
The way Thunder does everything.
That’s not to say he’s some kind of mindless automaton. That would make him a robot, a slave or at best, a domesticated beast doing what it’s told because that’s the easiest way it knows. Thunder is that wonderful thing that few horses naturally are – a willing partner. Most horses can be trained to be like this, but Thun was born this way. There’s nothing dead or subservient in him when he works, nor is he a horse with a really laid-back or insensitive nature. He’s a curious, alert horse; he investigates new things with gusto and inherited his mother’s joie de vivre and love of running. He wants to play with everybody, whether it’s his buddy Siobhan or the crotchety old donkey. He has life. He is not what I’d call a fiery horse, but he has a fire in him. A sparkle.
And when a horse comes to you and brings with him all his fire and all his sparkle, and he does what you ask to the best of his ability using all his willpower, not because it’s just the easiest way out but because he wants to do it for you – that, to me, is the purest way a horse can love a human. I think it’s as cute as anything when they come to you in the paddock, nicker when they see you or follow you around. But you can bribe a horse into these behaviours with food or cuddles or whatever else he likes. Going the extra mile, giving his best in every situation, and coming back for a fallen rider – that is real equine love.
It’s not something you can train. You can set up the situation to make it easy for them to do it, but it’s not something you can make a horse do. It’s something they just do, these wonderful, bewildering creatures that God made. And this is why I ride, this is real horsemanship – the strange and unconventional love between man and beast that communicates without language and speaks without sound.
That’s why I’ll part with my well-schooled mare and my ridiculously talented thoroughbred far easier than I’d ever part with my dumb, hairy mongrel gelding.
Because that’s Thunder.