Leaning on the fence next to me, elbows propped on the top rail, was a true cowboy. Gnarled and weathered, crusty as they come, and a likable sort. Full of tales and experiences. He must’ve been near my age and had been riding since he was old enough to hold on. I actually paused long enough to absorb the moment, me with my Boot Barn boots and new straw hat, right there in the thick of it. Me and him. Cowboys.
Then he spoke for only the third time since Mariah had come out of her stall, and the reverence I was feeling cracked and shattered like the coyote in a Roadrunner cartoon.
Mariah was a cute little Arabian mare that the cowboy had for sale. Kathleen and I were still looking for the right horse for her. The cowboy had watched me earlier in Mariah’s stall, just hanging out, waiting for her to tell me it was okay to put on the halter. She never did. The cowboy had asked, “Do you want me to catch her?”
It made me uneasy, but I said, “No thanks.” I wanted the choice to be hers. Trying not to seem so much like a predator by racing into the stall and slapping the halter on first thing, horse willing or not. But I couldn’t push away the feeling of embarrassment. Even incompetence. As if I were being challenged. I knew I could corner her and catch her. The stall wasn’t that big. But I was attempting to stir some sort of relationship. Not my will over hers, like it or not. Finally I took her willingness to just stand still as an offer, and I slipped the halter over her head. She made no move to help. I rubbed her forehead. Then her shoulders, belly, hips, and again her face. She twitched, and pulled away, showing no warmth whatsoever.
I led her into the cowboy’s arena and turned her loose. It was a small arena, but too large for a real Monty Roberts kind of Join-Up. Still, I had to try. I wanted to see if I could break through the iciness. When I unsnapped the lead, she took off like I was the devil himself, galloping full stride around and around and around. For the most part, I was just stood there, doing nothing, mouth agape.
After several minutes, the cowboy asked again, “Do you want me to catch her?”
“No, it’s okay,” I mumbled, feeling like I was the one on trial, not Mariah.
And she continued to run. I made a couple of token tosses of the lead line, but they were quite unnecessary. She ran on for a good seven or eight minutes with no apparent intention of stopping. I was getting dizzy. Finally I quit circling with her, turned my back to the biggest part of the arena, dropped my shoulders, and just stared at the ground.
And on she ran. Around and around. I felt the cowboy’s eyes on me, probably saying: What kind of an idiot are you? Get a grip and catch the horse!
I was running out of will. But Mariah wasn’t running out of gas. I was ready to give up when quite suddenly she jolted to a halt. Just like that. Maybe ten or fifteen feet behind where I was standing. I just stood there, staring at the ground. After a moment or two, she took a few steps toward me, then a few more. Monty’s advice notwithstanding, I was peeking.
She never did touch me, but she did get within a couple of feet and just stood there. Finally I turned to her, rubbed her forehead, and snapped on the lead rope. I wanted to feel pleased, but didn’t. It was willingness without emotion. Her eyes were empty. Like an old prostitute. I know the gig. Let’s get on with it.
The cowboy then climbed aboard to demonstrate Mariah’s skills. I suspect he was on his best behavior. He didn’t appear to be particularly hard on her, but I noticed that his spurs seemed about two feet long and he did use them. She performed cleanly.
Then it was my turn in the saddle. Mariah pretty much did whatever I asked, but all the while, her lips were pouty and her ears were at half mast. Neither fish nor fowl. Not really showing any attitude, good or bad. Simply not into it. Not caring, one way or another.
Kathleen was next, woman to woman.
That’s when I walked back through the gate and propped myself on the fence-rail with the cowboy. And that’s when he said, “I’ve seen some of that natural horse pucky on RFD-TV and I’ve gotta tell you, the way I look at it that horse out there is here for one reason. My pleasure. And I’m gonna make sure she damn well understands that.”
I think she did. And, now, so did I.
Clinician Ray Hunt opens every clinic or symposium the same way. “I’m here for the horse,” he says. “To help him get a better deal.” He and his mentor, Tom Dorrance, were the first to promote looking at a relationship with the horse from the horse’s viewpoint. Mariah’s owner wasn’t willing to do that. His question would likely be: What’s in it for me? Rather than, What’s in it for the horse?
Perspective is everything, I was discovering. And I wanted desperately to change the perspective of the old cowboy. But what did I know? I was a newbie. A novice. Why would the cowboy or anyone else listen? I felt so helpless.
It would get worse.
As Kathleen dismounted, I looked deeply into this horse’s eyes. I rubbed her, and the closer I got, the more she would turn her head, or step away. I tried to get her to sniff my hand, or my nose. That’s what horses do when they greet each other. Sniff noses. All six of ours now go straight for the nose when we approach. Blow a little, sniff a little. And we return the greeting. Much nicer than the way dogs greet each other.
I reached out one last time to rub Mariah on the face, and she pulled away. Just enough. I turned to leave and quite without warning she stretched out and nuzzled my hand. Well, maybe it was more of a bump than a nuzzle. But as I turned back to look at her, it became very clear to me that this cute little mare had received everything I had given, she just had no clue what to do with it. Trust had never been part of her experience with humans.
On the ride home, I asked Kathleen, “So… what did you think?”
“No,” she said flatly.
The silence telegraphed my surprise.
It seems that during her ride Mariah had spooked a couple of times at the dogs barking on the far side of the arena. That, plus the lack of any kind of warmth, had done it for her. Her blink, her first impression, was no.
Two weeks before she had been right on the money. I was all wrapped up in a palomino because he was gorgeous, but I was overlooking at least forty-six shortcomings.
“What don’t you like?” I had queried.
“Why would you even ask?” she said. And she was right. It was the wrong horse for us.
Kathleen and I had a deal. We would buy no horse that we didn’t agree on.
But Mariah was different. I had finally seen a tiny light in the window. Until later I would have no idea how much she had been saying with that one little bump of my hand. How much of a call it was to take her away. Away from the cowboy.
I told Kathleen about the smidgen of connection, trying to open her mind, but it was locked tight. I felt depressed. I was certain this little mare, given the choice of Join-Up, along with time and good treatment, would come around. She would begin to understand what trust was all about. But I dropped the subject and it was very quiet on the long road home.
The next morning as we sat with our cappuccino looking out over the horse stalls, I brought up the subject again The next morning as well. And the next. I was haunted by that vacant look in Mariah’s eyes, and the little bump of my hand. A cry for help. Which I believe to this day it was, but probably not as passionate a plea as I was portraying to Kathleen.
Finally, I’m sure just to shut me up, Kathleen said, “If you really feel that strongly about her, go ahead and get her.”
She arrived the next day.
I was excited and anxious to get started, confident that the sincerity of my desire and my extensive working knowledge of the Join-Up concept – approaching a full month now – would win this cute little mare over immediately. I took her straight to the round pen.
It didn’t work.
She ran around and around, just as she had done the day we met. But no signals of any kind were forthcoming. After several minutes, she clearly wanted to stop, but she had not given me an ear. No licking and chewing. Nothing. So I kept her moving, wondering what I might be doing wrong. Perhaps she didn’t know the language of the herd. Maybe she had never known a herd.
Doesn’t matter, I objected. She’s a horse, with fifty-two million years of genetics. It’s in there somewhere. Has to be. I was beginning to reel with dizziness as Mariah continued to run circles around me. Finally, I gave up, put her in a stall, and retreated to the house to watch Monty’s Join-Up DVD again.
I watched it twice.
If I was making a mistake, I couldn’t find it.
Maybe Kathleen had been right. Maybe we shouldn’t have purchased her.
Maybe she’d had so much bad treatment that she simply couldn’t respond to anything else.
Think persistence, I kept telling myself, remembering the story of an Aborigine tribe in Australia who boasted of a perfect record when it came to rain-making. They never failed to make rain. When asked how they managed to accomplish such a feat, the king simply smiled and said, “We just don’t quit until it rains.”
Back to the round pen, and more circles.
Two days of circles! Still no rain. I was determined that she was going to figure this out. But I was also becoming more and more convinced that she might very well have never been exposed to a herd; perhaps one of those horses who had spent her entire life in a stall, with no need for her native language. No opportunity to communicate with horses, and no desire to communicate with people like our friend, the cowboy.
Finally, on the third day, there was a breakthrough. Something clicked. After eight or nine trips around the round pen, her inside ear turned and locked on me. Then came the licking and chewing. Soon her head dropped and she began to ease closer. I let her stop, turned my back, and lowered my shoulders. Nothing happened for several minutes and I was about to send her off again when suddenly she walked up to me and stood, nose to shoulder. No sniffing, like Cash had done. But at least she had touched me. Of her own choice. And now she was just standing, instinct in control, but with no apparent understanding as to why.
It was enough. I was grinning from ear to ear.
I turned and rubbed her forehead and this time she didn’t pull away. As I walked across the pen, she followed, right off my shoulder, making every turn I made. I gave her a good rubbing all over. Belly, back, hindquarters, everywhere. And I blew in her nose, and sniffed. She didn’t respond, but she didn’t move away either. I could almost see the wheels turning. Do I know this greeting? Why’s he doing that? I don’t hate it really, but I’m not sure what it means. It does seem familiar.
Somewhere, deep down in her brain, her genetics were finally bubbling to the surface, freed at last from the perspective of the old cowboy.
The next morning when I went down to the stables to feed and muck, I realized for the first time how completely the Join-Up process had transformed Mariah. She was a different horse, waiting by her stall gate, head stretched toward me, and she didn’t move until I came over and gave her a sniff and a rub. A scratch under her jaw at the bend of the neck was her favorite. It became ritual. Every morning. And I dared not ignore her or she would scold me with a soft whinny or a snort. And then pull away when I finally came over, just for a moment, to let me know I had been naughty.
The simple act of giving her the choice of whether or not to be with me, of viewing all of her issues from her perspective, not from mine, had changed everything.
The new Mariah is as affectionate as Cash, as willing and giving, as anxious to see us… and until Skeeter came along she was Kathleen’s favorite.
I can’t help but wonder what the old cowboy would think if he knew that Mariah had learned what it means to trust.
Dr. Marty Becker says in his wonderful book The Healing Power of Pets, “We should recognize the bond for what it is – living proof of the powerful connectedness between mankind and the rest of the animal kingdom. And the element of this powerful relationship that has always impressed me the most was the importance of nurturing another creature.”
I wonder if those who don’t believe that you can bond with a horse, also dismiss Dr. Becker’s statement about the importance of nurturing another creature.
Not long ago I was hauling my tripod and video camera down our very steep pasture, struggling a bit because of sore ribs, a remnant from my fall off a ladder. I was moaning to myself about it as I set up the camera to videotape herd movement. Five of our six horses would soon begin their meandering climb back up the steep grade toward where the camera was set up. Only Mariah had remained at the top.
After a moment, I heard her shuffling up behind me. She paused at my back, lip-nibbled my shirtsleeve, then the most amazing thing happened. She nudged her nose between my arm and my ribs and pressed her warm muzzle softly against my rib cage. Precisely where it was hurting. She didn’t move for minutes, until I had to shift position to start taping. It was a moment I didn’t want to end.
How did she know?
Moreover, why did she care?
This is the horse whose relationship with humans was a blank stare when we first met her.
This is the bond.
Cash and Mariah are both what I call mutt Arabs (un-papered). They hang out a lot together. Not always, but I would say that they spend more time near each other than with any other horse in the herd. But that’s it. No hugging and kissing. Not even any swapped grooming that I’ve ever seen. Yet, when Mariah broke the ice in our pond and fell in she managed to get out on her own and make it back to the front paddock of the barn. (see The Soul of a Horse Blogged – The Journey Continues). When I found her, Cash was next to her pressing his body into hers, clearly trying to give her needed warmth. I never before or since have seen them that close together. Cash was there when she needed him.
Just as Mariah was there when I needed her.
The above are edited excerpts from the best selling book The Soul of a Horse – Life Lessons from the Herd by Joe Camp, written prior to Joe and Kathleen’s discovery that horses were not genetically designed to live in stalls.
To pause a photo, hover your “mouse” over it.
The story of our journey with horses (to date) is told in the two books that follow: the national best seller The Soul of a Horse – Life Lessons from the Herd and its sequel Born Wild – The Soul of a Horse.
And what a story it is as two novices without a clue stumble and bumble their way through the learning process so that hopefully you won’t have to. If you haven’t read both of these books already please do because with that reading, I believe, will come not just the knowledge of discovery but the passion and the excitement to cause you to commit to your journey with horses, to do for the horse without waiver so that your relationship and experience will be with loving, happy and healthy horses who are willing partners and who never stop trying for you. Horses like ours.
The highly acclaimed best selling sequel to the National Best Seller
The Soul of a Horse – Life Lessons from the Herd
#1 Amazon Best Seller
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Please list the names for each inscription in the “instructions to Seller” field as you check out!
But first read the National Best Seller that started it all:
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“Joe Camp is a master storyteller.” – The New York Times
“One cannot help but be touched by Camp’s love and sympathy for animals and by his eloquence on the subject.” – Michael Korda, The Washington Post
“Joe Camp is a natural when it comes to understanding how animals tick and a genius at telling us their story. His books are must-reads for those who love animals of any species.” – Monty Roberts – Author of New York Timers Best-seller The Man Who Listens to Horses
“Camp’s tightly-written, simply-designed and powerfully drawn chapters often read like short stories that flow from the heart.” Jack L. Kennedy – The Joplin Independent
“Joe Camp is a gifted storyteller and the results are magical. Joe entertains, educates and empowers, baring his own soul while articulating keystone principles of a modern revolution in horsemanship.” – Rick Lamb – TV/Radio host – The Horse Show
Follow our latest journey with two amazing new arrivals from the wild. Kathleen’s terrific photos are worth the click.
In chronological order:
Follow Our Entire Journey
From no horses and no clue to stumbling through mistakes, fear, fascination and frustration on a collision course with the ultimate discovery that something was very wrong in the world of horses.
Read the National Best Seller
…and the highly acclaimed…