Last summer I took young Maybelle to a stable an hour away to be bred to the stallion there.  Maybelle was in that long transition from filly to mare.  This was her first solo trailer ride since she was brought to Fourwinds Farm as a weanling, and she hadn’t been many places at all.  In her whole life she had met fewer than ten horses.  She lived in my small family group, and spent one winter with her minder River with a friend’s mares.

Not surprisingly Maybelle was wide eyed when we arrived.  Scooting around the giant trailer, wary about entering the barn past a running fan, and fascinated by the turned out herd of a dozen or so horses.  To say nothing of the gorgeous vista across the Tantramar Marsh!  But she came with me willingly – with some pauses and questions – in only a regular head collar and lead.  I had considered stronger equipment but I decided to trust my horse.

Maybelle was four last summer.  When she arrived at six months old I knew a lot more than I did with my foals a decade earlier.  She showed me how effective it is to soften in response to resistance.  She was hardly halter broke when she arrived and I was just as glad for that.  As I introduced the halter, leading, and tying I was determined not to pull on her face or escalate pressure, ever.  Early on she showed me the alternative.  Still less than a year old, I was leading her in the barn aisle and she stopped.  I put a little pressure on the lead and she pulled back against it.  Not hard but not forward like I was asking.  I softened, put a little slack in the lead rope for some seconds, took a breath, and then asked again even lighter than the first ask.  She came with me!

This was Maybelle’s third or fourth beach adventure, only a few weeks into her formal training!

This was Maybelle’s third or fourth beach adventure, only a few weeks into her formal training!

Over her years with me most of Maybelle’s education about horse-human relationships has come from daily interaction with me and her hoof trims every six weeks.  Many months those trims are the only time she has a head collar on.  (My barn, yard, and paddocks are organised so mostly I can move horses from here to there without leading them.)  But you know what?!!!  Maybelle now leads better than any other horse in my barn!  Last spring we went for a hand walk on the beach, her second or third time.  She willingly came away from the other horses and she matched my pace exactly, slowing or speeding up with me based solely on my body language.  When she was worried about something she stayed close.

When we arrived last week at the new barn she did the same thing.  While not entirely attentive to me, she stuck close and came with me willingly.  I stayed with her for about an hour visiting with the stallion and outside for a little grazing.

I am a bit of a worrier, so I had been thinking about this trip to another barn and her being handled by people who do things differently than me.  Would they bully her at all?  Or put a chain over her nose?  Or would she get confused by different handling?  Would she get scared and how would they respond?  Should I say something to them about how to treat her?  Just to be clear, I had no question they are capable horse people at this barn or I would not have left her there. It’s just that my horses are now used to interacting based on connection and presence, and they are given a voice in anything we do together.

Well… I decided to trust my horse.  To trust the foundation of confidence and well being that I know she has.  That even if someone handled her roughly or rudely that it would not shake her up.  In fact, I want my horse to experience other people’s ways even if I consider their techniques a little rude.  Through her life she will encounter humans who aren’t skillful handlers.  I want her to be generous with them!

It feels akin to having a teenager (from what I hear, I’ve never done this with a human).  At a certain point you have to trust that you have given them the tools they need to navigate life.  Of course you won’t knowingly throw them into dangerous or abusive situations.  But micromanagement doesn’t work either.  That only serves to disempower them.  So in a funny way, trusting them is almost the same as trusting yourself.  Trust in what you have done together to prepare them for life. Trust that they have the tools – and the resilience – to deal with what comes their way.

So I trusted my horse and left her at a barn with strangers (without over controlling and trying to tell them how to handle my horse which would only have insulted them).  She had already made me proud by walking on the trailer after less than a minute and travelling well.  When I went to fetch her two days later they said she did great.  She walked on the trailer again and travelled like a pro.

But here is the funny thing!  Maybelle had been ready for my stallion the night before she went there.  But she refused to talk to the stallion she did not know!  By the next day it was too late.  Even though this breeding I planned makes sense to me from my human point of view, Maybelle said NO.  I have raised her to have a voice and here it is!  I trust my horse.  We won’t be going back.

Photographs © Sarah Baker Forward