The Stud Chain Part Three: The Old Gray Mare

My elbow hurts this morning.  I dread that pain, because I know it will probably get worse the more I ignore it, and I will probably have to go get another shot.  I hate those shots.  So I wait for the pain to creep up to my shoulder, for the elbow to hurt so much I can barely type or pick up the car keys because I know that shot is going to hurt a lot more.

My elbow hurts because I fell on it last year.  Not just the elbow, the whole arm, when I made a pretty safe landing with my right arm tucked in, folded flat against my body, my hand protecting my face and my shoulder taking the brunt of the hit.  It was a good fall, the result of years of practice.  But I’m getting too old for this sh…  My shoulders and hips don’t like being the primary point of impact with the ground in a six to nine foot tumble.  They complain every day and do their best to make me feel really old, not just past my prime.

My elbow hurts because I fell on it last year when the latest member of the stallion roll call dumped me.  Writing about this horse will be more difficult than the last two, because our story is ongoing.  It is a lot easier to see the high points, low points and significant events after they have been sifted by the time filter. But the elbow is a good starting point, even if it came late in the tale.

My struggle with “I am Alpha” continues.  As Cesar Milan points out on his show, The Dog Whisperer, this struggle is something that permeates every aspect of our lives.  Lately I have not had much luck with that.  I am so far from Alpha that I think my designation would have to be some kind of compound rank, like Z dash 99.

Ironically, this stud is one of the sweetest horses we have ever had, regardless of hormone levels.   But he is still a stallion and he likes to tussle.  When I fell, I was not actually feeling intimidated.  Or I don’t think I was.  He has a habit of rearing up and waving his front legs in the air.  It is one of my least favorite obnoxious behaviors, and very common for stallions.   We were riding at a show, so my tolerance for obnoxious was pretty low.  We were in the middle of competition, so my tolerance was actually all tapped out.

When he went up, I got cranky.  I thought “Oh, no, you are not going to scare me that easy,” and I gave him a kick and pulled his head back into position and thought I had won.  So he went up again, higher.  I thought “Oho! So we’re playing chicken now… watch me not back down!”  I pulled his head back into place again, and smacked him on the shoulder with the crop.  So he went up again.  This time I heard the audience gasp.   I thought “Hell no!  If I am going down, so are you!”  I clenched my hands on the reins with no intention of letting go.  That is when my stirrups gave way, as they are designed to do to prevent riders from being dragged to death.  As I started to slip, I thought “what the hell am I doing?” I let go of the reins, hit the ground and rolled out of the way as fast as I could with one arm that didn’t seem to work anymore.  He didn’t come over backwards on top of me.

It was a good thing I was riding in an English saddle.  Western stirrups don’t come off.

Hm.  Well, he started it!  But what complete mental misfire made me even consider pulling a horse over backwards on top of me?  It is not clear.   As stupid as it was, I am a little bit relieved that I still have some fight left in me.  I may be looking for my last fight ever, but at least I’m not completely out yet.  It reminds me of our old gray mare, who died last year.   Now there was an alpha.

She died at 36, not very nimble any more, dependent on soft food because her teeth were mostly gone, slow to rise from an afternoon nap, and a little cautious about starting a fight.  But the other horses didn’t know that.  She was cagey, and in many ways, mean as a rattlesnake.   That last bit is all the horses knew.   From her first year of life, she demanded respect.  If another baby, boy or girl, got in her way or failed to notice her, she would wheel and let go with both hind feet, no warning gesture at all.  Other horses learned fast: get the heck away from that one.

Despite her treatment of other horses, she was also the family’s favorite pet.  She was one of those unaccountably affectionate babies that comes along every now and then.  When she would get stuck under a fence, or in wire, she did not struggle like a normal horse would.  She would call out for help and wait for you to come.  Horses just don’t do that.  A wise horse might not fight but they don’t call for help.  It made no sense: a normal horse circuit must have been missing in her brain.  Instead of “panic! I am trapped!” she seemed to think “drat, I better call someone with opposable thumbs to help me with this.”  She was people-friendly from birth.  She so loved people that she would chase other horses away from them, as if we were her property or something very tasty to eat.  She never bit us, though we shamelessly hand-fed her every kind of fruit and treat.  She never kicked us, though as a child, I crawled underfoot and even sat on her front legs while she snoozed.  She was ridiculously un-horse like.

She had that in common with this new stud, a deep affection for people.  There is another connection, a more obvious one.  It has been so many years, I had almost forgotten that she also used to stand up on her hind legs.   And she did go over.  She would go all the way up, then at the last minute, tip sideways, and come crashing down.   She was an all-in kind of horse, a horse of extreme temperament.  I adored her.

As she aged, she made note of physical deficiencies, as all horses do.  A twenty four year old horse will try some clever quick trick they have done all their lives and, when that leg just isn’t as quick as it used to be, fall.  Usually, they will give up that trick, or be more careful next time.  In bits and pieces this way they notice and adjust to the aging process.  With the old gray mare it was no different.  A few fights with new mares left her more sore than they used to.  She noticed that.  Of course she didn’t back down, but waited for the other horse to cave, then limped discreetly to the fence to find someone with opposable thumbs.  The only horse she ever ran away from was her father.  He was a gelding by then, but still every bit the horse who gave her the stuff she was made of.  So running away from him was no cause for shame.

The winter before she died, I remember hearing a ruckus at feeding time, a wild squealing and thrashing noise from the shadows of the mare shed.  Our mares have free access to pasture, with long open sheds for shelter.  I looked in the shed and caught a glimpse of the old mare bucking and kicking and twisting her head around as if beset on all sides by midges, or something worse.  I was in time to see her slip, lose her balance and fall over.  She jumped right up and resumed her tantrum, but with less vehemence.   The other mares were by now running for the hills.  The next day I came out to find 12 mares huddling in the small shelter, unable to stay dry since it was built for only 5 horses.  Alone in the shelter big enough for 15 horses stood the old gray mare, one foot cocked, her eyes half shut: Alpha at rest.

That’s what I need to be.  But I don’t think I have what it takes to impose my will on the world that way that mare did.  I can’t kick that hard.

Nevertheless, I know that feeling, the adrenaline and stubborn blindness that made me pick myself up off the ground, brush off the show ring dirt, walk over to the stud and get back on him.  As I approached, he expected me to kick him in the belly. He spun his rear end away from me, clamped his tail and kept his belly out of reach.   I have never kicked him in the belly.  Still, he knows that that is what happens to very bad stallions.  But we were in a show ring, surrounded by dressage riders, and belly kicks are way too cowboy for dressage riders.  I would have been thrown off the grounds.

So our discussion, which still did not involve belly kicks, had to resume later, by which time he had decided I was no cowboy.  I can’t, I just can’t kick a horse in the belly.  When I was a kid, a notorious horse abuser at a place I rode kicked a 2 year old in the belly so hard he had to be put down for an irreparable hernia.  It was horrible, and it proved that a person can kill a horse by kicking them in the belly.  That man was horrible.  He was charged with animal abuse, but at the time the penalty for that was still pretty mild.  So I can’t kick a horse in the belly, not hard anyway, not with a boot.  Maybe a medium smack with the side of a tennis-shoe but not hard enough to mimic a mare.

That is why people argue for kicking studs in the belly.  Because that is what mares do.  No matter how worked up or full of himself a stallion is, being kicked in the belly by a mare will shut him down.  It would shut anyone down, but stallions, due to the physical realities of their prime objective, tend to expose their bellies more than other horses.

The old gray mare never had to kick a stud in the belly.  She only had to look him in the eye and he would know whether to go about his business or… go about his business.

I wonder if Cesar Milan would mind working with a horse, or the horse owner.  As with dogs, it is never the horse, but always the owner.  Our brains are a LOT bigger than walnuts so we should be able to out-smart our pets.  There are a lot of trainers the new stud respects.  In front of them, he would never even think of misbehaving.  He is not stupid, he isn’t even very macho.  I suppose my cowardice is so glaring that it just can’t be ignored,  he has to point it out.  My elbow still hurts.  If the pain creeps back up to my shoulder again I may get a big red “C” tattooed there, and it won’t stand for “Captain.”

But not only cowards fail to earn his respect, so I may hold off on the tattoo.  He has been worked by many trainers who don’t seem to recognize that he is a stallion.  He is so sweet most of the time.  His charms disguise that primal need to dominate.  Before he came to live with us, he had a colorful history.  He began life with my old friend, the unflappable Alpha.  Until he was five, this stud was a perfect gentleman, even had a sweet little phobia of white mares because that was the color of the first mare to kick him.  She was the daughter of the old gray mare.  He got over it, with the help of many very understanding light-colored mares.  But that was the extent of his “boy bad” act- not being afraid of most girls.  He would frolic but no more than any young horse.

And then he met other trainers, and non-trainers, and a lot of nice ladies who fell for the gentleman act.  Gradually, he pushed a little here and a little there until he discovered that leaping through the air tossing his head would result in nothing worse than a sharp word or a tug on the bridle.  Certainly not a belly kick.  So he pushed and pushed until he could call himself “stud” and a whole lot of nice girls would just step off his back and run away.

Needless to say, my own style of running away did not impress him.  Sure, he wants me to come back but I am no longer the only one who comes to see him. When he is in training, there are other people who come by and give him treats and take him out to play. Only a few people, but more than one.  As far as I can tell, I am the only one really aware of the undercurrent of macho in this horse.

I let him get away with things, I do.  But as soon as I remember I should not let him rub on me, or stomp around while I groom him, I stop that.  His other primary handler is still a bit of a mystery to him.  In the way she rides (he cannot unload her any more than he could buck a fly off the saddle, and rearing does not impress her) she is Alpha.  But in other ways, there is room for doubt.  She lets him do cute tricks like pick things up and toss them around.  Brushes, buckets, hats, chairs… “his life is so confined,” is the argument, “that these antics are a necessary relief, a fair reward.”  She also does not kick him in the belly, and I believe she never would.

A stallion’s life is confined, that’s why it stinks to be a stallion.  Letting him loose is not the answer, unless it is with a mare so he can experience the full range of his stallionhood, like being kicked the belly.  Does it make him more dangerous to allow him to play with equipment, even if you punch him for nipping at you?  I think so.  Because picking things up with his mouth, shaking them, and throwing them around is a sort of mini-version of picking a person up by the arm and shaking them like a rag doll.

That can’t be, you think.  If he knows the difference between a mare and a woman, sure he knows the difference between a person and a folding chair.  Of course.  But I will go back to Cesar Milan: when a dog tears up a stuffed animal, that is like practice for killing prey.  It is only something they need to do if you want them to go kill little animals.  It is not a release- it is practice.  Makes perfect sense to me, but try telling a horse trainer what you learned from a dog trainer on tv.

While the new stud’s moods are unaffected by my shampoo,  I do notice a change in personality when he is in training.  He nips more, he pushes me more, he even gets territorial about his stall and menaces people, even me, on occasion.  He has been out of training for many months now, with a much bigger territory, hardly anyone reminding him that he is small potatoes.  It is not boot camp.  But he has no toys, no hand fed treats, and I don’t put up with any kind of nonsense. Calling to the mares when I am leading him gets a slap with the rope.  Prancing and leaping in the air gets a hard yank on the chain.

When he last came home from training he was a different horse, in a bad way.  He ran up and down the fence for hours on end, screaming to the mares, charging the gate, hardly eating his meals.  I tried letting him run it out, to no avail.  I had to start locking him up out of sight of the mares.  I had to start carrying a whip to catch him.  That was the only way I could be sure he would not run me over or strike at me when I reached up to put the halter on.  Holding the whip in one hand, right in front of his face seemed to help.   Not waiting for it to escalate also helps.  He doesn’t need to charge at me with his ears back.  If he even moves quickly in my direction I will run him off.  It seems mean, sometimes he is only hurrying because he wants me to give him attention, put on his halter, take him to the barn.  Too bad.  Zero tolerance is the only way.  It took a while, but I have him back.

He has all but stopped nipping at me.  When he is in a mood, and I need to bring him in, he may strut up to me and shake his head like he is all that.  But he keeps his distance.  As I get closer, he lowers his head and lets go of the fire and fury.

So what’s my gripe?  Well, I still can’t ride him for one thing.  Leading him around is good and useful but I do want to be able to ride him.  I haven’t actually tried, because I am not there yet.  It is weird, because with every other stallion it was just the opposite.  I didn’t feel safe with them unless I was on their backs.   I guess that only works with well-trained stallions, not stallions who used to have good manners but never really learned to respect a rider.  On the ground I have him back, for now.  What happens when he goes back into training, gets to play with chairs again?

Haven’t I learned my lesson yet?  Why not geld him?  Because more than any of the others, he is one amazing daddy.  He sires one beautiful love-bug baby girl after another.  It is freakish.  We have never had a stallion that justified being a stallion so well.  Some people prefer colts, boy babies.  Despite the subjects of this series of stories, we prefer girls.  How many could we possibly need?  Not many more, but if this horse was not a stallion, we would not know where to find fuzzy cuddle-bug baby girls to replace our herd of mares.  Really, we do not breed a lot of horses.  But if I ever hope to see another one like the old gray mare, this horse will be her daddy.

5 thoughts on “The Stud Chain Part Three: The Old Gray Mare

  1. Thoughtful post! I’m with you, Caesar Milan is a genius. I think it translates completely. And you are not C in the least. Stallions are tricky. Heck dominant horses are tricky. (and you know way more about stallions than I do.)

    After Jumbo (remember that big appendix QH chestnut gelding?) tried to lay down and roll over while I was still on him, I did the equivalent of sit-stay with him in ground work ala CM. Totally helped.

    I can’t kick a horse either, ever. Frankly I’d never thought about stallions and respect from touching their bellies. Makes total sense. What about a wide bat? Won’t hurt, will get attention? Maybe mimic a kick? Or a popper?

  2. Love the horse stories. Keep them coming. As a rather cerebrally-oriented, introverted writer who pays far more attention to the inner life than the outer, I found my gray gelding, Shadow, to be the best teacher I ever had, especially about power issues, unconscious emotions, and body language.
    I’ll take a horse teacher over a human teacher just about any day.


  3. Thank you Jeanie. This is the first time I really wrote about my horses, not sure why since they are such a big part of my life. Maybe that is why? In any case, while I am currently distracted by the NHL playoffs, I sense that the horse stories will return shortly:)

  4. Pingback: The Stud Chain Part Two: Pears « In the Land of the Houyhnhnms

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