Bonding with a human

I have been thinking lately about how a horse bonds with a human. So many people have so many ways and methods for this. Books are written, programmes devised, opinions politely discussed or hotly argued. I would have to admit that I do like a good book. Some of my favourites are by Imke Spilker, Klaus Ferdinand Hempfling, Mark Rashid and Carolyn Resnick. There are rituals, subtleties of body language, principles of leadership and many other concepts and ideas that can be adopted.

But when I think back to Mali, my first horse, I re-call how she bonded to me, exclusively, above and beyond all horses, for a while. There was a while when I could come to her in a five acre field of horses and she would follow me at liberty to the riding arena. Loose in that arena, she would follow me, walk beside me, turn with me, stop with me, all without any join-up, special lungeing, leadership games or any other means. She stuck to me, a very average leisure rider, of her own free will and chose to follow me and want to be with me above all her equine companions, for a while.

Here is how it happened.

I bought Mali, a beautiful 3/4 bred 15.1 hands Irish Sport Horse over seven years ago.


I kept her for a while in a small yard and then moved her to a riding school and trekking centre, set in 100 acres of farm land. A friend of mine moved her mare there too. She and Mali were a pair bond in the larger herd of school and livery horses. In the summer time, the fields were fabulous, I used to explore them, following sheep tracks, go for long gallops and practise dressage using thistles as markers. I also used to ride out on the roads. There was a long circuit which was a good ride, about 2 hours, once you braved the fairly fast road that was outside the farm. One sunny summer day my friend and I went out for a ride around this circuit. The wind was blowing, the shadows were dancing along with my friend’s chestnut mare and we had a good ride and a good chat and came back along the faster road towards home.

Along this road, my friend’s mare was hit by a jeep towing a trailer who had to try to squeeze past us in a narrow part of that road. The mare broke a hind leg, severing an artery and was put down on the spot.

I do not want to dwell on the awfulness of that moment and the devastation for my friend, her beautiful mare and for Mali.

But afterwards, for the rest of that summer and right through until Christmas, Mali bonded with me. I was her pair bond. She spent the night following that accident calling for her friend. When she was turned out in the field I was told that she would walk up to where the school horses were and stay near them. But when I came, she would turn and come to me, leaving the horses and the grass. It is not as if she was difficult to catch before this. She would wait for me in the field as I would walk up to her and she would come willingly once a headcollar was on. But this time was the first time she would come to me without one. I could walk slowly through this field and she would walk slowly, I could walk faster or run and she would also speed up accordingly. I used to visit her about four or five times a week and I had this level of bonding for months. My friend eventually bought another mare and Mali stayed bonded to me.

Then Christmas came and we went up to Dublin to spend Christmas with my parents. We were gone for about a week. When I came back Mali had bonded with my friend’s new mare and the strength of the bond with me was gone. She was still a willing, sweet mare, and in the arena at liberty would stay stuck to me, but those wonderful times of walking through a field full of horses with me at liberty never returned.



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8 responses to “Bonding with a human

  1. June

    What a nightmare.

    When I lived in the U.K., I used to ride on busy roads all the time. People here never do. I used to stop at traffic lights and everything – there were so many bridle paths interspersed with built-up areas that it was the only way to get to them.

    What happened to Mali in the end? She looks lovely.

    My first pony, whom I got when I was almost 14, became very bonded to me. I still feel guilty that I “traded up” when I was 18. Thankfully we never had to sell him – we gave him to the farmer’s daughter at the farm where we kept him, and he lived out his days there. When I visited him, he would call after me when I left.

    I didn’t have any techniques either – for some reason he just decided that I belonged to him.

    See now, if you’d moved into the field with her, she’d never have switched you for another horse ….

    • At least in the UK, you had bridle paths. I lived there for a few years, in the south-east of England, such an over-populated area, but we were surrounded by acres of national trust common land. It was only when the foot-and-mouth crisis happened, and the common land was closed off, that we saw horses on the roads.

      What happened to Mali? She started going lame all the time and was diagnosed with arthritis in the hind legs. She was not too badly lame but not really rideable any more. So I thought I would put her in foal. To cut a long story short, she did not ovulate when expected so the vet gave her a prostaglandin injection. She went into anaphylactic shock and died.

      I was absolutely devastated. And I felt so guilty on top of that. It took me a long time to get over missing her. I still do actually. It was my first experience of how a horse – or any animal – can become so much a part of you that you feel its loss at such a visceral level.

      • June

        We had a beautiful 18-year old Appaloosa mare who was lame and so decided to put her in foal (she’d foaled before). She died at the stud’s barn – not from a shot – probably from a stroke.

        Did you ever read “A Dog So Small” by Phillipa Pierce (sp?)? Maybe Ben’s your “Brown.”

  2. June

    It must have been terrible – coming out of the blue like that.

  3. June

    Brown is a dog whom the little boy gets after he can’t have the dog he really wanted. But it’s different in your case, cos in the book the dog he really wanted was a fantasy dog, and Brown was real; whereas both Mali and Ben are real. But it just made me think of that story. And sometimes I think the horse in front of us is always competing against the ideal fantasy horse we have in our minds. With my first pony, that was so much the case, but he finally managed to show me who he really was. And vice versa I guess.

  4. June

    Just like the man in front of us always has to compete against the ideal fantasy man!

    • June, I think you are right. Everyone always told me how lucky I was with Mali, she was a dream horse for me. Ben is so different, couldn’t be more so, and I do need to let the dream go for the reality that is Ben. When my trainer said that I should get another horse, I realised that I did not want to even if I could. Ben is who he is, very honest, always very honest and different to Mali. Just waiting for me to see him as he is.