I received an email from someone today who just lost her “heart” horse saying that she resents her other horses, and she doesn’t know what to do. She asked me how I reconnected with my other two after Shandoka died. I know to some this may seem strange, but I’ve seen this more than a few times.
What is a “heart” horse? A Heart Horse is that horse that you have the most amazing bond with, a friendship that transcends all friendships, a trust that is immeasurable, and a love that runs as deep as it gets.
Shandoka and I were as close as a human and horse could get. He had a rough start in life, and when I took him in, he challenged the heck out of me. I don’t blame him. Humans never gave him a reason to trust him, yet for some reason he decided to give me a chance. I took that chance with little confidence in myself. I hadn’t been around or worked with horses in years. All I had in my back pocket were my grandfather’s words and teachings, and I didn’t know if that would be enough.
My grandpa was a natural with horses, and he said that I was as well. All I know is that I loved them deeply. There is nothing like the partnership, because that is what it is, between a horse and a person. They don’t have to have anything to do with us at all, but for some reason they allow us in. Getting in isn’t always easy. You need to earn their trust, and more importantly their respect. Once you do, it is amazing. It is a privilege that I never take for granted.
Shandoka was wild and distrustful. The wild part never bothered me, but the distrustful part concerned me. Sometimes a horse after being taught they can’t trust humans never will. The first time I put Shandoka in the round pen with me, he did everything he could to try and make my feet move. See, that is the key to the start of any relationship with a horse. You want the horse to know that you can move their feet forwards and backwards and move their rib cage, hindquarters and shoulders.
Shandoka was determined to move my feet, and I was equally determined to move his. He ran at me several times. I didn’t move. I used my stick to redirect him by swinging it in front of me; not by hitting him. He ran by me and bucked at my head. Lucky for me I do yoga, and I did a nice back bend; his hoof never landed. I made him trot and lope around, changing directions often until finally he would let me touch him. Did I mention how he didn’t like to be touched when I got him? After he let me touch him, I would quit and walk away. The moment you relieve the pressure the horse learns what the best choice is.
When I was a teenager, we claimed a horse named Scubber at the track. He was a big, beautiful bay horse that carried his head so elegantly. He had a nice shoulder and even better hindquarters. He came to us with an elevated white blood cell count, worms, and scared of everyone. My grandpa told me to get into the stall with him, and to let him come to me. Scubber had a gentle heart and soft eye, and I never felt threatened by him at all. He didn’t know if he could trust us, and a lot of that came from his last trainer I believe. He didn’t have the best reputation on the track. My grandpa never liked people with a heavy hand or belief in the 2×4 method of training a horse. He always said to me, “Why would anyone want a broke horse when you can have a gentled horse?” All horses loved him, because he understood them. Grandpa may have been blind in one eye, but he could see everything that needed to be seen in a horse, and they all responded to that.
I never felt like I had my grandpa’s eye, but I climbed into the stall, stood in the corner, kept my eyes down on the ground, and waited. Within a few minutes, Scubber came up to me and let me start loving on him. Scubber and I adored one another. I often snuck down to the track to visit him and sleep with him in his stall. My friends had just been murdered, and Scubber and Vehicle (our other racehorse) were my solace, my peace, and a bit of healing. All of the dang tears I wept on their shoulders.
For those first three days I went into the round pen with Shandoka, I brought the spirit of Scubber in with us. Each day Shandoka challenged me, each day I stood my ground, and each day it took less time before he walked up to me letting me pet him. On the fourth day I told him I wouldn’t round pen him if he let me walk up and pet him. Tense, his head held high and taught, I slowly walked up to him and reached out towards his shoulder. My hand touched him lightly, and the muscles twitched under my fingers. I put a little bit more direct pressure upon his shoulder as I pet him while he stood there letting me. However, his eye was wild. There was nothing soft in them, so slowly I kept petting him moving from his shoulder to his neck. I reached around to the other side of his neck while facing him when I found a deep, scabbed cut at his poll. He tensed as I ran my fingers gently around it until I rested my hand upon it. This is when everything changed. He let out a deep sigh licked his lips, and his eye softened. He lowered his head and let me run my hands all over him. For the first time of many times he let me rest my head upon his shoulder.
We became so close that I don’t even know how to explain it. We were partners and spent many, many hours with each other out on the trail, playing, or just hanging out. When he died on July 14th, I felt like I buried my heart with him. A huge part of me died with him, but my two other horses needed me.
Chaco became so stressed after Shandoka died that he literally got colicy within an hour of burying Shandoka. I had to give him meds, walked him, and hosed him down. While this was going on. Harley stood by Shandoka’s grave nickering for him almost to what some could call hollering. We all were in mourning.
Instead of even trying to work with your horses or ride them after you lose your horse, go out to their paddock, pasture, or barn and find a place to sit with them. Don’t ask anything of them. Sit there and wait. Let them come up to you when they feel ready to. Let them love on you, walk away, and come back to you. They understand better than anyone else about your loss, because they are going through it too. They need your guidance and care, because you are part of their herd. They will comfort you if you allow them to. Five days after Shandoka died, I realized that Harley wasn’t nickering for him anymore; he was calling to me. He stood by the fence close to my desk window and nickered until I went out, He would hug me while I draped myself over his withers.
If you approach or ride your horses with resentment, you could damage your relationship with them permanently. They will lose their trust and respect for you and respond to you in disrespectful ways. If I had someone on my back that resented me, I guarantee you, I’d buck you off. You can earn it back, but it will be harder to do so. They’re going to wonder why they should give those two things back to you when you threw them aside.
If you can’t sit with them without projecting resentment, try to stay away until you can put it aside. Take a step back and really watch your horses and how they are acting. This is when you can see their pain if you are open to it. I saw how Harley slept next to Shandoka’s grave each night; he still does six months later. I saw how Harley chased Chaco out of barn if Chaco tried to eat out of Shandoka’s hay bin. I saw Chaco go and stand by Shandoka’s grave each day, which he still does, and I saw Chaco shut down emotionally towards me.
Sometimes horses can get aloof after loss. This isn’t a reflection upon you at all, but an indication of how devastated the horse is. Chaco went through this, and I believe he did for a lot of reasons. Part of it was I think he blamed me for taking Shandoka, his first, best buddy, away from him. He went through a lot of change as a racehorse, changing hands, etc, and I think he wondered if I was going to get rid of him next. He really didn’t want much to do with me. I remained patient and kept trying to work my way back in. Every now and then his guard fell, and he would bury his head into my chest for a hug. The aloof wall would go back up quickly, and off he’d go. He then began to push me away hard, and this is when I put him in the round pen. We worked for 40 minutes one day before he finally joined up with me, and when we did, the wall came tumbling down.
See them for who they are. Chaco and Harley will never be Shandoka, but Shandoka could never be Chaco or Harley. Each horse, like a person, is an amazing individual. If I compared my two boys to Shandoka, I would be missing out on so much. They are such wonderful, caring, funny horses. I am grateful to have these two being in my life, because they simply amaze me each and every day. Our herd changed dramatically with the loss of Shandoka, and neither Harley or Chaco has emerged as the alpha. Instead they look to me, and when I’m not around, they take turns in leading one another. Although, when it comes to eating hay, Harley is the boss. The point is my relationship with them will never be like my relationship with Shandoka. Does that mean we aren’t as close? No. I love them so much.
It’s been six months, and all three of us still miss Shandoka more than I can express, but through the loss of Shandoka our relationship has deepened all because I listened to my grandpa and I listened to my horses. If I wouldn’t have, I can’t imagine what we’d be like right now. They are my inspiration, and I treasure my relationships, my partnerships with Chaco and Harley. Chaco’s former owner wanted me to give Chaco back, and there is simply no way that will ever happen. Not because of anything to do with him, but because of how much I love him, how close we’ve become, and how he is an integral part of all of our lives. And Harley is my big goof ball that loves to have his butt scratched and is my teddy bear. They are both my heart horses.
If you lose your heart horse, go out with your horses, watch them, listen to them, and simply be with them. You will all heal together and find yourselves in a different yet wonderful place. You can have amazing relationships with each and every horse in your life that can’t ever be compared to one another due to their incredible uniqueness.