Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Alpha Mares and Mountain Lions

An African lion, not a mountain lion.  But whatever.

Yesterday's gorgeous weather was the perfect opportunity to get my horse Sarah and my daughter's horse Mickey spruced up for their forthcoming trip to Florida.  Or so I thought.

I'd body-clipped Sarah a few weeks ago; all I had left to do was pull her mane.  I'd tried to body-clip Mickey at the same time, but the experience had proved so traumatic for both of us that I'd given up until I could go to the vet's and get some tranquilizers.  For the horse.  Really.

Of course the day got away from me--what day doesn't?--with unexpected child-shuffling, dentist visits, etc., but I still had quite a bit of daylight left when I got out to the barn.  It had been so warm the evening before that I'd taken Sarah and Mickey's turnout blankets off, and though they'd both been perfectly clean when I zipped down the driveway that morning (on an errand of mercy to the high school--my daughter's jeans had ripped in place where you don't want holes), they'd celebrated my lateness by having a few afternoon rolls in the mud.

Ok.  Baths.  After that, my daughter put Mickey in his stall to dry off, and I put Sarah on the crossties in the aisle.  Sarah grows a lot of hair, and I'd left her mane alone all winter, so it flopped to both sides of her neck in a crimpy tangled mess.  You trim and thin horse's manes by yanking the hair out, not by cutting it (unless you want your horse to look like that poor kindergartener whose mom decided to cut his hair herself, the night before Picture Day).  This doesn't hurt, because, unlike humans, horses don't have nerves in the roots of their hair.  Or so I've been told.  Some horses resent having their manes pulled anyhow; Sarah, a paragon of obedience in most things, certainly does.

Sarah is 5 1/2 years old, a baby in horse terms.  Her grandpa was a Belgian draft horse, and she's a big girl, with a fine broad rump and massive ears.  She loves to put her head lightly against my chest, so that I can rub all over her neck and play with her ears.  She's like a 1200-pound housecat in some respects, and if I don't cuddle her enough she sulks and refuses to leave her stall until I do.  

Ninety-nine percent of the time Sarah goes along with everything I ask.  The remaining one percent she's a 1200-pound toddler throwing a tantrum in a grocery store.  Horses have very defined social orders; in any herd, there's an alpha mare who bosses the rest.  In my barn, I'm the alpha mare.  Yesterday Sarah made a bid for my crown.

I stood on a stool and began to comb out her mane.  She pushed herself sideways, knocking me off.

This sounds small, but it isn't:  in the wild, a lesser horse wouldn't slam into a socially superior horse's space.  Not only that, but horses are trained from the start not to go into any human's space.  Humans squish easily.  Sarah's got lovely ground manners.  Her deliberate action amounted to a gauntlet thrown down.

I yelled and elbowed her and got back onto my stool.  She shoved me off.  I jabbed her with my metal comb.  She did it again.  I went to the tack room, came back with my dressage whip, climbed on my stool, and when she started to move sideways belted her until she backed off.

I could belt someone's bare backside with my dressage whip and not raise a welt.  It isn't painful.  It's punishment.

She moved sideways; I smacked her.  Back and forth a few times, and she gave up, muttering, and let me work on her mane.

Eventually I got tired of pulling her mane with a dressage whip stuffed in my armpit, so I let the whip drop.  Immediately--immediately--the horse knocked me off my stool.  I fetched the whip and work resumed.

Then it was Mickey's.  No whacking about with dressage whips here.  Micks has an unholy fear of being body-clipped, to the point where he has a nervous breakdown if he's nearby when I turn the clippers on.  I don't know where this comes from--we've only had him a year, and before this season I'd never needed to clip him--but if you beat a horse because it's afraid, all you'll do is evoke every single prey-animal instinct the horse ever had.  You will cease to be the loving human that feeds the horse daily.  You will become a mountain lion.  And the horse will do whatever it takes to escape your clutches and stay alive.

So I tranquilized Mickey.  My daughter held his head and sang hymns to him.  I pressed my body close against his--both to comfort him and because he can't kick me as hard that way--and I held the body of the buzzing clippers against him until he stopped trembling, and then, very slowly, I began to work.

One long strip of winter hair fell to the floor, followed by a second.  But not a third.  Yes. Right then, when we had the horse stoned, held, sung to, comforted--the clipper blades gave out.  Too dull to cut hair, they fluffed it instead.

I didn't have any more sharpened blades.  There was nothing we could do.  My daughter and I turned the horses out to pasture, where both Sarah and Mickey rolled in the thick, sloppy mud before settling down to graze.