I did not grow up with horses, so I don’t consider myself an expert horsewoman. I never had any intention of raising and training a young horse. That is a job for experts. But when we brought my old mare Sweet home to the little farm near Arlee, she needed a companion horse.
We borrowed one from the neighbor and instantly liked the smart old quarter horse. Within months, the neighbors gave her away to their granddaughter and we had to say goodbye to Lena. Next came Hottie, a cute little paint mare. Just as we were getting familiar with each other, the neighbors sold her. They replaced Hottie with her yearling filly Comfy. She was a scrawny, shy little thing when she first arrived, but she got along famously with my old mare. Sweet never had a foal of her own. Now she got to play a mother role. My partner Jim fell in love with a horse for the first time in his life. Right from the start there was a special bond between him and the little black filly. So when the neighbors indicated that she would be sold, we bought her. Oh my.
We decided to rename her. As a yearling she was no longer “Comfy”. She was very active and always in trouble. Sitting out in the pasture and observing her, I meditated on her true name. What came up was the name Moira. I thought it was Irish, but Google said it was Greek for ‘fate’ or ‘destiny’. And so it was.
I talked to experienced horse people, read books and watched videos about training young horses. I comforted my doubts by reminding myself that Sweet was adult but mostly untrained when I got her 12 years earlier, and I worked with her mostly on my own. My training methods were unsophisticated and unorthodox, but we are doing well together. Sweet taught me more than I taught her in the process. Most of all, I learned to observe horse behavior and imitate it as best as I could to become a human version of a lead mare rather than a predator. I learned the very basics of horse communication, which is 99% body language.
Sweet has always been meek and ranking at the bottom end of the herd pecking order. Being her leader was relatively easy. This little filly was quite the opposite. Once she had acclimatized to our place, she turned out to be most curious and self-confident. She had to stick her nose into everything that was going on in and around her pen and pasture, literally. She was always there to “help” Jim as he worked on completing the barn. She examined the work of our friend and equine dentist as she worked on Sweet’s teeth, and she found the procedure most fascinating.
Doing our daily chores for and around the horses, Jim and I had to learn to set boundaries for our safety’s sake. Young horses play rough. Human bodies are not built for horseplay of that nature. At the same time I intended to use Moira as a therapy horse when she was grown up and calmer. So we did not enforce the typical “Don’t enter my space unless invited.” rule all that strictly.
Over time Moira learned to be fearless but gentle around people. She nuzzled us affectionately without any attempts at nipping. She leaned into us occasionally for affection or turned her hind end to us to get her tail scratched – but also to test once again if she could push us around and assume a more dominant role. We had to be careful to give her attention and rewards on our terms, not hers. She was fully intent on leading, not following. When she turned 2 years of age she had already assumed leadership over the timid Sweet. That is most unusual in a horse herd, where normally the old, experienced matron is the boss.
Dealing with Moira required me to step up significantly in the way I show up in life. In my childhood I had learned that being invisible and silent kept me safe. The less I was noticeable, the easier was my life. I would frequently disappear in the woods and fields around our small town all day long, showing up for meals and bedtime only during the summer vacation. That made everyone happy.
I learned neither to lead nor to follow, but to forge my own path. I never felt part of any herd. I valued independence and authenticity. “Treat others they way you want to be treated.” Don’t boss me around, and I won’t try to boss you around. Brute force was the leadership style I grew up with, and I don’t like violence and disrespect in any form. So becoming a leader myself was never on my agenda.
With Moira, having to be lead mare for my safety’s sake meant having to change my modus operandum. Being small and invisible did not work with her. I had to be a big presence energetically instead of being inconspicuous. Further more, horses are highly intuitive and empathic. Own your feelings, and the horse will respect and accept them. Deny and repress your emotions, and the horses will act them out for you. With a 1000 pound animal in front of you or under your saddle, owning your anger or fear is much, much safer!
Owning my feelings does not mean striking out in anger or running away in fear. It means saying to myself and to the horse: this is where I am right now. I’ll just breathe with that and let it pass. Or better yet, take it out on the horse manure while mucking out the barn. Whatever part of life feels like shit, pick it up and toss it into the garden where it becomes fertilizer. Nothing ever stays the same, and every bad situation can become the stuff that nurtures your soul if you let it work for you.
With her playful exuberance and innocence, Moira lured me out of my shell. She showed me how to stand up for myself, claim my ground and proclaim: I am here. I belong. Here are my boundaries. They are firm and non-negotiable – for my safety. I recognize your boundaries as equally necessary, and I will respect them. In mutual trust, we can grow and learn together, enjoy each other's company and go on great adventures together.
If I can work with a 1000 pound animal, standing up to another human being does not seem so intimidating anymore. Just as I learned to set boundaries to the roughhousing of my cheeky filly without reacting in anger or fear, I can now hold up my head in human conflicts. I am assuming the other person is doing their best at the moment, meeting their need for safety or self expression. Nothing personal. I have the same right, and I can respond differently, calmer now than in the past. I don't have to shrink or run away. I don't have to take the blame for things that are not my fault, just to diffuse someone's anger. I don't have to get indignant and defensive. When I stay present, compassionate, and at peace within myself, we can communicate and find a solution to our conflict that works for both of us. I don't always succeed at first, but I am far better equipped to try again. There is always a next time.
Moira’s gift to me was not only self-confidence and presence, but also irrepressible joy. She was love in motion. She never had a bad day. Until her last day.
Part of her uniqueness was her intolerance for fences. She was a free spirit. Being confined was against her nature. She never learned to stay away from fences. Ears, cheeks, legs, sides – she was always getting cuts and scrapes. At two and a half years of age she looked like an old battle horse, scarred from one end to the other. Finally, the fence won.
Jim and I came home from a Solstice celebration last winter, and Moira was dragging her foot. She had gotten her right hind leg caught in the fence and pulled so hard to free herself that she cut through the two main tendons. The vet explained that one cannot keep a horse non-weight bearing like a dog, cat or human. Her other hind foot would founder, meaning become extremely painful and dysfunctional. I could keep her alive, and the wound would heal. But Moira would never have a stable leg again. She would never again run, jump and play. She would be in constant pain, and eventually I would have to put her down anyway.
Part of being a leader means having to make decisions and taking full responsibility for them. Some decisions are easy, others are not. Some work out fine, others do not. A good leader has to live with doubt and uncertainty, success and failure, – and keep going. As Moira’s human lead mare, I made the choice to have her euthanized without further suffering.
Wisdom is not something we are born with. It is earned the hard way through experience. Moira made me wiser.
This is not the end of the story, however. A few days after Moira’s untimely passing I texted the friend who had sold Sweet to me 14 years ago. I told her what happened, and that we were once again looking for a companion for Sweet. She responded with one word: “Coco”.
Coco is an old horse buddy of Sweet’s and I. Sweet has known him since he was born. I met him at the same time I met Sweet. He was two years old then and a most lovable brat. It was a choice between him and Sweet to become my equine companion, and Sweet chose me at the time. But I never stopped loving Coco. If I could have afforded two horses at the time, he would have been the other one. Now my friend is in the process of retiring from her horse business and reducing her herd. Within 3 days of my text, she had Coco transported to our place. The horses recognized each other right away, having been pasture mates for many years.
At 16 years of age, Coco is no longer chocolate colored. Like Sweet and I, he is grey now. They look very much alike, and they have become inseparable. Coco is still a most lovable brat, and these days I am much better trained for working with him. Moira was a great teacher. She will forever be the invisible third presence in our horse barn.