Spend enough time around horse people, and you will hear about the mythical ‘bond’ that some seek with their horse. Sometimes I read of someone selling a horse because they have tried and tried but they say they just can’t establish that ‘bond’ with it. Gggrrrrr, that makes me see red!
Sorry, but I call, as the game goes, “Bullshit”. (Watch How To Lose A Guy In Ten Days if you are unfamiliar with the game. It’s great.)
It is very easy to feel happy and confident around (and on top of!) well-behaved horses, especially those which respect your personal space and your aids. One can relax, and they relax more too. Everyone’s happy. A very easy ‘bond’ to make, if you want to call it that. I fully accept that some horses take a while to build up their confidence with a new person, and that rude, undisciplined, difficult horses tend to need more experienced handlers and riders if they are not to be dangerous. I can fully understand not feeling much of a ‘bond’ with a horse like that!
However, unfortunately, in spite of wishful thinking, horses won’t behave well because they love you, or because you saved them, or because you feed them, adore them, promise to keep them forever, spend far more money than you can afford to on them, buy them a spangly browband, feed them lots of treats, or because it would be much better for them if they did. If only.
They behave well because they have had consistent training and the boundaries have been established. Even a horse with a naturally equable temperament can turn into a bit of a thug if nobody shows it how to go on. Sometimes those boundaries have to be calmly and patiently re-established… with a sharp or bolshy horse who likes to push them, that might mean every time the horse is handled. If someone has done this good work (which is essential – it’s a safety net for a horse, wherever s/he ends up in life) then it’s very easy to reap the rewards: the horse is a ‘nice person’ to handle. Predictable. Confident and confidence-giving. It is easy to have an instant ‘bond’ with that sort of horse!
Of course, there are those which clearly love human company, who will leave their mates every time and follow you around the field (not just searching for polo mints in the pocket either), and these are very easy to love, and to feel that your feelings are reciprocated! Then there are the standoffish sorts who just about tolerate humans, and clearly don’t love a cuddle… but both types can be great, useful horses.
Some riders get a new horse and go out competing immediately with great success. Amongst the Utterly Legendary Rides of our sport is Mark Todd’s catch ride on Rodney Powell’s The Irishman at Badminton, when he rode him once before, went out and cruised around clear inside the time. He did the same with Horton Point a few years later, to win. There’s no time to build a ‘bond’, there. It’s purely exceptionally good training + exceptionally good riding, understanding, and ‘feel’. Enviable, and something for us all to aspire to.
A similar test is trying a horse to buy. You have a very short period to sum it up and to try various things with it, and to work out whether it likes the way you ride, or whether you can accommodate the way it likes to be ridden, and whether it gives you the sort of feel you want, whether it be as a safe hack or a future superstar, or anything in between. Some horses you can click with immediately, others can make you feel all at sea, especially if they are hugely different to what you are used to riding, or very unresponsive to your aids!
And sometimes, a horse you think you know inside out, one you would happily trust with your life, can totally catch you out.
I am fairly experienced and safety-conscious around horses but a couple of weeks ago I got a real shock. I have a homebred, Daisy, who was a bit stroppy as a youngster but has been pretty much a model citizen to handle, for years. Okay, she’d sometimes put her ears back and snap at the air a bit when being girthed up, and occasionally when being rugged up, but it was all warnings, she never touched me. The sort of horse I was happy to ask my non-horsey boyfriend to do (including changing rugs) if I wasn’t around, and the only thing I worried about was whether she might inadvertently stand on his feet if she moved and he didn’t. When people visit, they often remark on the fact that Daisy never stops watching me, she is so switched on to me. People have often marvelled at the ‘bond’ between us.
When being washed, clipped, tended by the vet or anything else, she has always given a clear and early warning if she was uncomfortable, with a tail swish or ears back, or by moving away. Fair enough, she’s allowed to express herself, to tell me what’s up. I honestly thought, 100%, that this was a very very safe, kind horse to be around. I would have bet the farm on it.
A couple of weeks ago while I was changing her rug in the field, for some reason she stretched out with her nose and touched the electric fence tape, earning a really hard ZAP on her muzzle. She ran off, clearly very upset. Luckily the rug was nearly done up and stayed put. It took me a minute or two to catch her, calm her down, give her some fuss, and finish changing the rug, which she let me do without demur. I then thought no more of it… BIG mistake.
The next morning she had her breakfast in the field, as usual. I went off to superintend the other two eating their breakfasts (so they don’t swap over) and then walked back up the field to Daisy, and slid a hand under her rug, by the shoulder, to see whether she was the right temperature. As I gently withdrew it, BAM, she snaked her neck around and bit me very hard on the thigh. Photo evidence above. Please forgive the cellulite and the view, it’s not an easy area to take a selfie of!
She gave NO warning, not even a tail swish, and did it without hesitating for a second.
She knew she’d done wrong and ran off immediately, which was probably lucky for her… I was rather displeased and the air turned blue for a bit as I hobbled away.
All I can think is that she remembered the electric fence zap, associated it with me touching her rug, put 2 and 2 together, and came up with the wrong number. RUG + ME = ZAP, therefore get a pre-emptive strike in first? I have no idea. It was totally and utterly out of character. She has not even thought of doing it again (I have checked/changed her rug twice a day, since).
A horsey friend says horses don’t reason like that, that the electric fence zap had nothing to do with it, but I am not so sure… she’s been perfectly behaved since, and it was totally out of character. I have only been bitten twice before, in over 40 years around horses, and both were tiny nips compared to this.
So even a horse you have known intimately for 10+ years can totally surprise you. My guard is now higher, and I’m very lucky it wasn’t worse! I’ve been left with a big lump on my leg (a haematoma, no idea how long that will last) and even less faith in the mythical ‘bond’! And Darling Daisy has been re-named “Evil Edna”…