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.