The butterfly effect
I am glad I brought my wellingtons as I walk up the hill towards the meadow where Tulla, Luca, Jack and Buddy live. It's a bright November morning after a rainy night and the grass is soaking wet. Behind me, London's skyline can be made out clearly in the distance. I'm just outside the city, but as I scale the first fence gate on my way to the secluded meadow, I feel as if I am passing through the wardrobe into Narnia.
Because I was also here yesterday, I know what I am about to see. It's not something one gets to see every day. Equine behaviourist Emily McDonald claims she will never invent a fancy brand name for her approach, but if she ever did, I'm thinking it should be Consensual Horsemanship. Because what strikes me the most about the way Emily is with her four semi feral rescues is how she insists on doing everything with the ponies' affirmative consent.
When I was a child, the adults told me not to touch a butterfly or it would die because it couldn't fly without the dust on its wings. Later in life, I learned that the dust is made up of tiny scales which stabilise the butterfly's wings and protect them. A butterfly will shed scales when handled, but if handled carefully, it could still go on to fly when released. As the butterfly is unable to grow new scales, the dust is very precious. Old butteflies may have clear patches on their wings where the scales have gone completely. One day, when the wings are no longer sufficiently protected by their dust, they may tear and the butterfly will lose its ability to fly and it will die.
It strikes me that a horse's spirit is a bit like a butterfly's wings. Its flutter is rarely snuffed by a single encounter with a human. Instead, we incapacitate the minds of horses over months and years of housing and handling. We trap their butterflies in little jam jars where they hurl themselves against the glass, gradually shedding their dust and eventually tearing their wings. Of course, many horse owners are mindful of their horses' psychological health. But to meet and touch a horse whose butterfly is completely intact is something special.
I think most of us couldn't interact with our horses the way Emily McDonald interacts with the Meadow Family - even if we really wanted to. We largely handle horses who have been forced by humans to do things since the day they were born. The opportunity to interact with these horses on a one hundred per cent consensual basis was lost forever the day someone grabbed them as a foal and forced a headcollar on them. Tame horses who have been given the option to engage exclusively in interactions with humans at their own discretion are extremely rare. I feel like I am about to meet a bunch of rock stars as I hike along on my way to the meadow.
For decades, the previous owner of Tulla, Jack, Luca and Buddy has kept horses on this farm and for 22 years, he has never paid his bills from the farmer. It's not hard to understand that the farmer now needs the situation to change. He has been letting the ponies stay out of the goodness of his heart. He has made sure they had water and he has even fed them hay during the worst winters. Now they have to go, and with horse rescues full, the most humane option available would have been to put the ponies down in the field where they had lived their entire lives. As they were unhandled, it would have had to be by rifle shot. Rounding up a bunch of terrified, semi-feral ponies just to give them a lethal injection would be cruel and unnecessary.
Luckily for the ponies – and for the rest of us who now get to follow them online – it never came to that. Emily McDonald was there to offer her assistance. Otherwise these ponies would now be dead. You might think that's not such a big deal. Lots of ponies die every day because somebody lacked the good sense not to breed them. These would only have made four more. A drop in the ocean.
All the same, I am excited that Tulla, Luca, Jack and Buddy aren't dead. For their own sake. But also because to me, the horse-human relationship is one of the most interesting things in the world. I love meeting new horses and their people and seeing how they are together. And I have never met any humans and horses with the kind of relationship which has formed between Emily and the Meadow Family ponies in just a couple of months.
I know we all have different ideas of what that word means: Relationship. Some people look at a horse jumping or doing reining patterns at full speed from invisible aids, and they call that a relationship. What they actually mean is obedience. This tendency to confuse friendship and obedience is probably the one thing that gets the most in our way of forming a true bond with our horses. We think the horse must do what we say in order for there to be a relationship. Horsemanship gurus even tell us that the way to build a relationship is to move a horse around, show him who is boss, make him do your bidding. Unlike how we approach would-be human friends, we start out by making demands of horses instead of starting out by offering acts of kindness. We feel we have to control horses from the get go and sometimes we're right. They need to stand tied, they need to walk on a lead rope, they need to have their feet trimmed, they need to get that injection, they have to let us ride them etc. Or at least we think so. There is always something urgent that a horse has to learn or do and this means we almost never get to be with horses the way Emily McDonald has been with Tulla, Luca, Jack and Buddy.
Emily wants to get enough money together to keep the ponies in this same meadow which is their home. She wants to pay back those who help by taking small groups of visitors out to observe the ponies and by keeping a video diary online of all the interesting behaviours which can be seen just by hanging out in the meadow. Emily's ultimate dream is to attach a learning center for children to the rescue. She works with kids part time and originally wanted to be a school teacher. "As a child, I learned to just get on and kick" she tells me."That's how many children are taught to be around horses. I want to teach children how to view the horses as sentient beings instead. Not just treat them like robots."
If you want to donate some money for Emily's project, here's a link.
More than anything, watching the Meadow ponies is like playing affiliative behaviour bingo. These ponies are such a close-knit family. There is much we can learn from them if we hope to keep domestic horses while protecting their butterfly wings as much as possible. Watching Buddy the foal share in his father's feed from a bucket or seeing as the two of them play together is a pleasure. So much good natured fun is had play fighting while mum Tulla keeps a soft eye on her boys from a distance. I can't tell you how much I'd rather watch Jackson teach his son to dig up roots than go to a horse show and be "entertained".
Bob Marley sang that ”If you know what life is worth/you will look for yours on earth.” For me, this is what looking at horses is about. It's about knowing that while there may not really be such a thing as Paradise, all is well as far as these horses are aware and they don't seem to mind my mooching on their peace. I get to hang around with a lot of horses, but I don't always feel like this. I feel it on top of the Spanish mountain where the Pottoka ponies live. I felt it in a pen of rescued donkeys in New Mexico. And I feel it here, just outside London, where the Meadow ponies are. But there is more to it than that.
When Emily McDonald set out to tame the two stallions, the mare and the colt foal, she never even considered roping them or penning them or otherwise forcing them. She was keen to get the stallions castrated, but she knew she was probably too late to prevent Tulla from getting pregnant, so there really wasn't any rush. This meant that she was able to let the ponies' natural curiosity and sociability do the work. And because they had never been handled before, she didn't have to deal with any aggression brought on by fear of humans. In fact, none of the horses – including the stallions – ever showed any aggression, she says.
We can learn from the story of the Meadow Family how things could be between horses and humans if we all decided to make it happen. It took Emily twenty days to get to where she could put headcollars on the stallions and safely handle them for the vet who came to castrate them. Twenty days. In a 15 acre field. With four unhandled horses. No ropes, no round pens, no flooding, no high value food treats like oats or carrots. Emily says these are the easiest horses to train she has ever met.
Now all the Meadow Family ponies come up as soon as they see Emily climb under the fence. They don't come for the food. She feeds them buckets of grass chaff and linseed, which they don't appreciate that much. It's hard to eat processed feed from a bucket with your tongue and lips when you've always used your front teeth to pluck whatever you ate. And anyway, their field is full of grass and other edible plants. No, it's not the strange food that lures the ponies to Emily. They just like her. They like her scratches and just hanging out with her. It's clear they consider her company. Environmental enrichment, perhaps. Several times during my visit, I get the ponies on film jumping ditches and running to her just to say hello.
The two ex-stallions don't look like geldings yet. They were castrated just over a month ago and look equally impressive in their different ways. They are clearly more vigilant than the mare and foal. No doubt they would defend their group against a possible threat. Lucky for me, I am not perceived as such. I am not greeted with the same enthusiasm as Emily, but though I am a stranger, I still get said hello to. I get whiskered and thoroughly sniffed. I am even allowed to pet them and they show me that they've learned to let a human know how and where they want to be scratched. These recently unhandled horses are more communicative towards me than most domestic horses I run into. And as I put my hands on them, I can feel by the tone of their bodies that they have no fear of me. Or any ill will. They are completely relaxed – you know when you get that feel off a horse who is not shut down and not afraid and not about to hurry off somewhere, but is just content to be hanging out with you for a while? The Meadow Family ponies feel like that after just a couple of months with Emily.
It makes me wonder. Why the force with little foals. Why the intensive breeding management? Why the early, unnatural weaning? When horses can be allowed to be born, grow up and mature under close to natural conditions and still have the ability to develop strong, mutually appreciative relationships with humans. Rhetorical question coming up: Is the equine industry doing it wrong?
Emily tells me that the two adult stallions were a bit mouthy at first. She never once smacked them or otherwise punished them for nosing her and even grabbing her clothes with their teeth. In return, the stallions never escalated their behaviour. It was investigative. It was playful. When they were done investigating and the behaviour didn't result in any rewards, it started to become extinct. The same goes for Buddy, the six month old colt. He still likes to grab Emily's coat, but he doesn't once grab the person inside it. Emily treats this as what it is: Play. ”Humans don't play like horses, Buddy” she says with a smile. And she moves away when he gets too boisterous. Seconds later, he is next to her again. Less mouthy this time. He understands. Her company is a reward in itself and he is willing to change his behaviour to be allowed near her. That right there is what a relationship is, I think to myself.
I notice Tulla the mare over by the fence, we came in under. She is eating an open umbrella which Emily left on the other side of the fence. I ask Emily whether they normally get treats for touching it. ”No” she says. ”They've never seen an umbrella before.” I laugh as I think of all the people whose horses are umbrella-phobic and I wonder if perhaps those horses are in fact afraid of the animals holding the umbrellas and not the umbrellas themselves. The way I'd be afraid of a crazy person holding a cricket bat, but I'm not afraid of a cricket bat just lying on the table. My suspicion is intensified when Emily brings out the bag on a stick. Tulla and Buddy come straight over and sniff the bag. When Emily rattles the bag, they seem to find it even more interesting. I ask her how she desensitized the horses to the bag on a stick. ”Oh they've never seen one of these before” she says. It's clear to me that if the ponies hadn't learned over the past months that Emily would never hurt them, they would be highly suspicious of the bag on a stick. As it is, they just find it interesting. They wonder what fun thing she has in mind with the strange object and they follow her around so as not to miss whatever it might be.
I think back to the beginning of the year when I went to the Horseman's Calling competition in the UK. How the young, frightened horses were brought into the three round pens in front of the audience so that three trainers could showcase the best way to train them to accept a saddle, a bridle and a rider. The horses had no relationship with the humans who were in the pens with them. They were out of their familiar environment and they had no other horses around them whom they knew or trusted. If you asked any equine behaviour expert to imagine the worst possible training scenario from a horse's point of view, they would probably come up with something like that. If you ask any expert on interrogation and intimidation methods to come up with an ideal scenario for breaking someone's spirit and achieving their submission and obedience in the shortest possible time, their suggestion might also carry an uncanny resemblance to the setup from the event.
I think about the footage from Horseman's Calling. Of terrified horses running for their lives in the little pens while being chased by strangers with pieces of tarpaulin in order to ”get used to plastic”. I think about how some people shrugged and said: ”Well, how else are you going to get a horse used to scary things?”
It seems to me as if Emily's approach would constitute one alternative. Build a relationship with patience, kindness and a solid understanding of equine behaviour and learning. Don't use force. Provide free access to known friends and family as well as food and freedom. Don't get greedy. Don't wear clothes you don't want horses to chew and slobber on. Bring a book. Perhaps bring some tea or coffee. Dress for the weather. And wait. Plan ahead, use your brain. Be safe, but don't be afraid of the nature of a horse.
Guard the dust on those butterfly wings as if it were made of the purest gold. If the spirit of a horse is what attracted you to the species in the first place, put that spirit first. Don't let anyone tell you that horses can be spoiled by kindness. Measure your success not in ribbons or obedience but in playful and affiliative gestures from your equine companions. Even if he slobbers on your coat. Even if he accidentally steps on your toes. Even if it means letting go of your ego and ambitions. Especially if it means letting go of your ego and ambitions. Be the guardian of the dust on the wings of the butterfly. Don't be the greedy, grubby fingers rubbing it off.