First day home. So frail and tiny.
Three years later – Big and Strong!
Below is an excerpt chapter from the book The Soul of a Horse about the adoption of Mouse from the Animal Rescue League of Iowa. The League rescued her and 13 other horses from extremely grotesque circumstances. She’s an American Saddlebred and was approximately seven months old when adopted, skinny and undernourished, and came to Monty Roberts’ Flag is Up Farms completely untouchable with hooves that looked to be out of a horror movie.
“We don’t need another horse!”
The tone was emphatic, finality dripping from every word.
“But, Sweetie…” I sniveled into the phone, “this one’s had so many problems. She needs us.”
“We already have six horses.”
“But we don’t have a baby.
“She’s a baby???”
There was a long moment of silence.
“Wipe that smile off your face,” she said.
Kathleen knows me too well.
Mouse was just under a year old. An abused, neglected creature who had been shipped to Monty Roberts along with three others from the Animal Rescue League of Iowa to benefit from his demonstrations and behavior rehab. My stepson Dylan and I were auditing a week-long course that Monty was teaching at his Flag is Up Farms in Solvang, California. That’s how we came to know this bedraggled little filly.
Carol Griglione, President of the Rescue League, told me the four were part of a group of fourteen that had been placed in the League’s custody by the court, extracted from simply awful living conditions. Mouse, two other yearlings, and a mare who was blind from malnutrition were in a dry lot together starving when the League got to them. None of the horses had food or water. Two of the fourteen couldn’t be saved. And there were a hundred-and-forty more they expected to get within thirty days. Thank God for people like Carol and her team. One stallion had been found leg deep in his own poop in a tiny little enclosed stall. His name was Defiance. I didn’t wonder why.
Little Mouse’s feet looked like something out of a horror movie. Long ski jumps with cracks and chips galore. She was malnourished, skinny; her mane and tail were tightly matted, and filled with burrs and stickers. It took six people to herd her into a small corral in Iowa to ready her for the trip to Monty’s, and then she jumped the corral! She was frightened to death of humans, until Monty went to work. Using his amazing understanding, and her own language, it took him less than ten minutes to have her following him around the pen, rubbing her all over, even lifting her feet.
It was easy to see that she was hungry for a leader, a compassionate partner. And that deep down she was generous, willing, and very bright. I was in love.
“She needs a good home,” I whispered into the phone, not wanting to interrupt Monty’s demonstration.
“So do we,” Kathleen said, “and we aren’t going to be able to pay the mortgage if we keep adding horses.”
“I’m sending you a picture I just took with my cell phone.”
“I don’t want to see it.”
But she saw it, and another I sent of a rear foot.
“Poor poopsie baby,” she said.
And that was pretty much it. Mouse would be in the third stall of our three-horse trailer when we left on Sunday. Monty had asked me to bring Cash up to Solvang so students could see what an idiot with only two years experience could do after starting with Join Up. He didn’t actually put it that way, but I’m sure that’s what he meant. I resisted, because the last thing I wanted to do was to trot Cash out in front of a bunch of students who had been watching the master at work for several days. But in the end, I relented, if allowed to bring along a buddy to keep Cash company. Kathleen was busy with an upcoming court case (did I mention that she’s a lawyer?) and couldn’t come along so Dylan and Handsome filled in for her and Skeeter.
I have wondered whether I would have adopted Mouse had the horse trailer not been with us. Had it not been so easy to get her home. Kathleen says now that she even considered telling me to take a third horse so she wouldn’t have to worry about something like this happening.
“Well… if you had been there like you were supposed to be…”
“It wouldn’t have changed a thing,” she said, a reluctant smile squiggling across her face.
I can only conclude that it was meant to be.
As Monty was finishing his first demonstration with Mouse, the students were all abuzz over the young filly. Several were asking if she were available for adoption. I slipped off the back end of the viewing stand and headed straightaway back to the classroom where the Rescue League phone number was posted. I wanted to be first on the list. Suddenly there was a hand on my shoulder. One of Monty’s instructors.
“Monty would like you and Cash in the round pen.”
“That’s what he said.”
Adrenaline was up. It needed to be down.
And I didn’t need to be distracted when I walked in with Cash. He was already wired and nervous with all the unfamiliar horses around. I took several deep breaths and tried to squash my adrenaline.
Monty’s round pen is completely enclosed so the horse cannot see out, and no one can see in. The students all stand on an elevated walkway encircling the pen six or seven feet off the ground. When the big wooden door swung open, Cash’s eyes looked like saucers. So did mine, I’m sure. There were fifty or sixty pair of eyes scattered around the pen. All fixed on the two of us. And one pair belonged to Monty Roberts.
I’ve spoken to hundreds, even thousands of people before and never felt this out of sync. I suppose it was because, until now, I wasn’t being scrutinized by someone better at what I was doing than I would ever be.
Thank goodness for Monsieur le Cash. And Join Up. And all the learning we had done together. Because, in the end, Cash did everything he was supposed to do as if it were second nature, totally ignoring my raised adrenaline level. He moved his hindquarters this way and that with no more than a glance from me. And his forequarters went left and right with a wiggle of a finger. He backed up and came forward, side-stepped both ways, and lunged (trotted) at the end of the rope changing directions with a mere point of my finger. And, on cue, he gave everybody a big fat smile. A lopsided smile that turned up on one side, like a certain past rock star. Who says Elvis has left the building?
When I unhooked the lead rope and turned him loose, near the end of the session, he trotted straight toward Monty and stretched up for a rub. He had never met Monty before, but somehow he knew intuitively which one was the man .
I spent much of the time in the pen just standing, talking to the students, answering questions, and Cash was always right at my shoulder, blowing in my ear and checking out my nose. And that’s what the class appreciated the most. Not the various maneuvers he had learned to do flawlessly, but rather that the two of us clearly had a very special relationship. Kathleen suspects that’s exactly what Monty wanted them to see. The kind of relationship that is born in Join Up.
“It was so obvious,” many of them said afterward. “This horse loves you.”
I thought to myself how easy it is to get so wrapped up in the task at hand, the bit of training, the trick, the discipline that we forget about the most important part of the relationship with our horse, or anyone for that matter. The relationship itself. When you get that right, the rest is easy. I turned to Cash and rubbed him on the forehead.
“What a good teacher you are,” I said.
I slipped away from the group of students who were admiring my big handsome partner.
“Excuse me.” I said. “I need to make a phone call.”
Just a few weeks before, I had been talking to Kathleen about how our leap into horses had been so feverish and obsessive that I was finding it difficult to remember those early days, and the hours I had spent with each of our horses in the round pen and the arena. The relationship-building, the training, the learning by all of us. All crammed and compressed into every waking moment. And all seemingly so automatic now. So accepted. So taken for granted. I thought it would be a good exercise to start anew with a horse we didn’t know, now that we had so much more understanding.
“Almost two whole years,” Kathleen chirped.
“You know what I mean,” I said.
“Not exactly,” she said. “What do you mean?”
“I suppose I must need some sort of confirmation that we don’t have six flukes.”
“You mean we just got lucky?”
“It’d be nice to know.”
“We know,” she said. “We don’t need another horse.”
It wouldn’t be long before I would hear that line again.
After putting Cash back in the turnout with Handsome, I went straight to the classroom and called Carol Griglione with the Animal Rescue League of Iowa and during that conversation we became the proud parents of yet another chance to prove the concepts of relationship from the horse’s end of the lead rope. An undernourished, bad footed, scraggly, sweet, bright, cute, fantastic little filly who had, never had as much as a nice hello from a human prior to meeting Monty Roberts.
Kathleen was right. We seriously had no business adopting her. Who knows what she had been exposed to in the awful conditions where she had been living. And it was difficult enough to keep our other six moving forward, never mind, as Kathleen had said, the cost of the feed and the added poop to muck. And up to this point, the youngest horse we had any experience with was six years old.
Mouse was barely a year old and had no training whatsoever, except the time she spent with Monty. Maybe three hours total over the week.
Still, I was smitten.
But the minute I faxed the adoption agreement back to Carol, “adopter’s remorse” hit me like a brick in the back of the head. What did I know about baby horses? What if it didn’t work out? Already everyone in the course was asking how soon updates on Mouse would be on our website. Suddenly I was very nervous. Maybe this was all wrong.
Maybe I should take Mouse out for a walk and see how she responds to someone other than Monty .
Dylan and I worked with her in her pen, generating a bit of follow up , the next step after Join Up. Encouraging the young horse to follow us around, which she did very readily. Then we walked her down to meet Cash and Handsome, and that went well. Lots of nose-to-nose sniffing and blowing. So I was beginning to feel better about the whole thing.
Until feeding time.
Mouse was chomping away in her pen, and I went in to give her a rub and say good night but suddenly met her butt spinning toward me, and a pair of striking feet! I twisted my shoulder leaping toward the gate, barely missing a hoof to the thigh. My adrenaline soared, and I was shaking. This was a different horse! Once outside, I was caroming wildly from fear to anger to not really knowing what to think.
But there was no question I had made a huge mistake.
Was she some sort of Jeckel and Hyde?
Get back in the herd , I kept telling myself. Why would she flip out like that?
I dug my way out of the reactive part of the brain, back to the thinking side.
And finally it struck me. Just look at her. Ribs showing. Spindly legs. Before rescue, there’s no telling when she’d last had a decent meal. And maybe she had to deal with bigger older horses moving her out and taking her food away from her. Or perhaps she had never dealt with a herd at all and had no idea about hierarchy. In any case, she was clearly saying this is mine! Perhaps the best meal she had ever had. And she wasn’t giving it up to anyone. Herd member or not.
Proof once again that we never stop learning.
Stand clear when she’s eating.
Someday, hopefully, she will come to realize that there will always be enough food with us. I wondered how many of the people we had met over our short two years with horses would’ve whipped her for striking at them. Or walked away and left her, with no attempt to understand why she had acted the way she did.
Two days later, back at home, while our natural foot specialist was rasping away on one of those same back feet, and while I was rubbing her, one hand on her forehead and one under her jaw, she fell asleep in my arms, trusting me to support the weight of her head, confident that no one was going to hurt her.
And I was smiling.
She’s going to be fantastic.
And it suddenly occurred to me that Mouse was a bridge, from one journey of discovery to another. Yet another way to help horses. And I thanked God for that, and promised I would be telling folks about Mouse.
Mouse was rescued by the Animal Rescue League of Iowa who always has horses, dogs and cats needing good homes. Please contact the League if you can help:
To pause a photo, hover your “mouse” over it.
The above is an edited excerpt from the bestselling book
The Soul of a Horse – Life Lessons from the Herd.