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Talking Horses

Buck and Flicka

A Valentine’s Day Love Story

by Scott Thomson

  thomson

From time to time, after an especially hard day, I admit that I sometimes ask myself why, at this age, I continue to do this work.

Working with horses for a living is hard.

There’s the obvious physical toll that comes from handling large flight animals out in the elements every day. Add to this the mental fatigue from having to function as psychologist, counselor, coach and phys-ed instructor for the human. And, you do this all for an hourly rate that probably never hits minimum wage because of the emotional investment in horses that causes you to forget all the hours you really put in.

Then, something touches you so deeply you want to work even harder to keep these amazing animals as part of the human experience, even in this instant digital age that seems to place little value on depth or emotion.

This is one of those stories.

 

 

Ain’t what she used to be

A couple of years ago we had a seized horse come into End of the Road Horse Rescue, an older gray Arabian mare. She was just skin and bones, to the point where you probably could have used her to teach a class in equine skeleton structure.

flicka
The old gray mare ain’t what she used to be. In fact she’s much better. The old gray buck, Buck Esslinger, ain’t what he
used to be either, after befriending Flicka.

We knew a bit about her past, but the way she carried herself said a lot more. An oddly curved neck, a dropped out back, her nose stuck almost straight up in the air and some obvious marks and scars where implements of torture, also known as tack, had been used, all indicated a tough life as a servant rather than respected partner.

She also had a very hard edge to her behavior. She would bite, charge, and threaten to kick anybody who went into her pen, or any nearby horses.

To me, the message was clear. She’d never had a good deal from a human, so what was going to be different now.

Some volunteers renamed her Flicka in hopes that the warm and fuzzy name of a beloved fictional horse could help in some mysterious way.

Our first goal was to get weight on this horse, correctly and at the right pace. This often influences behavior, but our efforts didn’t go particularly well.

Free choice, quality hay and appropriate supplements didn’t seem to work on either the weight or the attitude.

An equine dentist found she had extraordinary dental issues, probably causing her constant pain and discomfort, and did a thorough retooling of her mouth. A vet check found a number of issues with her blood values and signs she might be compromised in other ways. It has been estimated that 90 percent of the gray horses in the southwest will develop cancer of some sort, and this was definitely on the radar for this horse.

The dental work produced almost immediate results in terms of her overall health.

She ate better and started to gain weight. Her coat improved and there was a bit more sparkle in her eye.

 

 

‘Speaking horse’

Next, I had to work on her behavior. It was still a high-risk proposition to go in her pen, but in a rescue situation with inexperienced volunteers helping out, you simply cannot afford to have a horse that is dangerous in any way. I went very slowly, focusing just on showing her I could “speak horse” and setting clear boundaries and expectations. I worked with some scary objects and worked above her from the fence and on a stool.

I saddled her but didn’t get on her as a way to break a routine she knew too well. I taught her to stand and wait at the gate rather than running over the human, and how to stand still for blanketing.

We then tried to make her life a little more horselike by introducing her to another horse. Eventually, we were able to add a third horse, creating a little herd of old gray mares. At that point, we felt we could remove the “Dangerous, Stay Away” sign from her gate.

 

 

Life in the herd

About the same time Flicka arrived, we welcomed a new volunteer to our team, Robert “Buck” Esslinger.

Unlike many of our volunteers, Buck was not there because of some long love affair with horses. He admitted he knew very little about horses, but felt volunteering for a good cause and some physical activity would be good for him.

In his early 70s, he had been dealing with a number of health issues, the worst of which was near-debilitating rheumatoid arthritis that hampered everything he liked to do in life. Perhaps being outdoors, doing some light physical work and adjusting to “life in the herd” would help him deal with constant pain.

He brought a wealth of experience in other areas the ranch needed. Whether it was construction, repair jobs or leading the “poop patrol,” Buck kept things moving along every day he was there. Occasionally, I did notice him standing and watching the horses, so I had him watch my training sessions when time permitted to help him understand a bit more about horses and their nature.

I showed him a few basic techniques for safety should he have to move a horse or guide one through a gate.

When possible, I had him watch what I was doing with Flicka so he good see how good leadership and clear direction, from the horse’s perspective, can help a horse deal with life in our world.

I didn’t know Buck had ventured inside Flicka’s pen once to do some cleaning, and she had pretty much run him out of there. He admitted that, of all the horses at the ranch, this was the one he was actually afraid of.

 

 

That magical connection

One day, Buck ventured into her pen again. Flicka came right over and just stood there.

He petted her for a while, then went about his business cleaning the pen. Gradually, he added grooming to his pen visits, then took the step to apply fly protection (Flicka has always had a horrible problem with flies), hoping the result might be like the proverbial “pulling the thorn from the paw of a lion.”

Feeling confident, he put a halter on Flicka and took her out of her pen.

He’d take her on short walks and let her eat some grass, sometimes even letting her off the lead, knowing she would stay near all the other horses. He used this time to give her some special supplements.

Gradually the walks became longer.

Buck was starting to feel that magical connection between horse and human.

No matter the weather, he’d come out to see how his “girl” was doing. When Flicka sees him she goes right to the rail and waits, eyes glued on her “guy.”

A few months ago, I was working with another horse, and I noticed Buck go in and get Flicka. He brought her over to a picnic table, placed her bowl of supplements on the table and just sat there while she ate, like a couple of old friends at a picnic.

No “words” were exchanged, they were just hanging out.

He then took her on a long walk down the driveway. She walked calmly at his side, no bouncing around or pulling on the rope like the old days, just out for a stroll with her best buddy.

It was a beautiful picture.

 

 

A deeper reason

Far too many people think a horse only has value if it can be ridden. I’ve never believed that. Flicka is a horse that deserves to never be ridden again. If we tried, I know all her bad memories would come back in an instant and we would lose all the progress we made rehabilitating this horse.

A good horse person would say Flicka probably has more value now than she’s ever had.

Sure, some of this relationship is about walks, eating grass and yummy treats. But, if that’s all it was, it wouldn’t carry over to the calm and respectful way Flicka responds to every other person at the ranch.

Something else has happened.

Buck feels better than he has in years, and has a deeper reason to come to the ranch. And Flicka, as only a horse can, responds to her new life free of fear and filled with kindness by lifting the life of a human.

 

 

Scott Thomson lives in Silver City and teaches natural horsemanship and foundation training. You can contact him at hsthomson@msn.com or (575) 388-1830.

 

 



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