When Horses Become Family
by Keith Dixon
On June 27, 2015, I drove eight miles north east from Kamsack, past the abandoned house where I was born, and on to the neat farmyard of recently established Ravenheart Farm. I was searching for connections between two worlds: the farmyard of my youth where horses were servants and the Ravenheart farmyard where humans learn from horses.
When I first learned of Ravenheart Farm, I reviewed their website (ravenheartfarms.com). There, I read about a workshop titled Horses, Spirit & Play. I was hooked. I began an email conversation with Carol Marriott who manages the equine events at Ravenheart. I had grown up with horses and rode Old Nell the two and a half miles to Bear Stream School. I shared my experiences with Carol and her responses gave me glimpses of a new way to relate to horses. I registered for the workshop to learn more.
It was mid-morning, the day I turned into the Ravenheart lane. Carol waved to me from the farm yard. I was barely out of my van when Polly, a border collie, and Charlie, an all white dog of the same size, pushed close to greet me. I experienced a heart-felt welcome both from Carol and her dogs. In the distance, I saw horses in a corral who paid little attention to my arrival and who in the next few minutes inconspicuously slipped out of sight.
Being shunned puzzled me. Carol had explained that the horses are invited and usually come voluntarily to meet visitors. They hadn’t come, so she asked if I wanted them called. I wanted to meet the horses, but also wanted them to come of their own free will. When they had not appeared, I worried. Were they avoiding me, or was it the strange winds that day that lured the horses away to a hidden corner of their pasture?
Lunch hour passed and still no horses. Carol asked again if I wanted her to call them. I agreed and she started calling. The five mares returned slowly, one by one. They offered no apology. On a very hot day, why should they not relax in the shade rather than check out a stranger standing in the sun?
They brought with them flash-backs of the horses I had known in my youth. The softness of their noses. The nibbling at my leg but never really biting. The wind-tangled manes. And the horse smell that brought primal feelings of companionship and comfort. They did all that without saying a word. If only I could communicate so easily!
Carol offered them handfuls of a mineral mix which the horses enjoy routinely. She said their interest in the treat was unusually strong that afternoon. Though they seemed pre-occupied with the treat and with the pecking order which dictated who got to nibble first, they allowed me to get close without showing any alarm. I began stroking manes and offering my hand for them to sniff. I hadn’t been that close to a horse in years. Sensory memories flooded my body.
When Sugar, the buckskin mare, took particularly long at the treat bucket, I moved closer to stroke her. She didn’t appear to notice me, but soon accepted my touch and stopped eating. Then she started to yawn. In the photograph, the gesture looks almost hostile, but at the time I felt no threat.
Later Carol offered me an explanation. “The yawn can mean a stress release of endorphins, sometimes from the horse, or from the horse picking up something from the human. For instance, often when . . . a person who is sharing something authentic and profound, . . . with a horse present, the horse may yawn and release. Other times, if the person is connected to the horse in an empathetic way, the horse may yawn.”
I am not sure what started Sugar yawning with me. Perhaps, she sensed my disappointment that the horses had not come voluntarily. Or maybe she was feeling a bit stressed over having been called. The yawn felt like something being resolved. The tension was gone. We were okay with each other.
Perhaps the tension came from an event right after lunch when I discovered an injured duck in the farmyard. I had called Carol. Though breathing, the duck was paralysed. We decided that the most merciful thing to do was to end the bird’s life. And so we did, with an axe and chopping block. It was not easy. We were still feeling very subdued later when we moved to the gate and the horses were called.
The death of a duck probably has little significance for a horse. But the emotional impact that event had on us must certainly have been something the horses sensed. She had not witnessed the duck’s execution. But she could not have ignored the emotional pain that we humans had just experienced. As we began to let go of the pain, she could feel the release and marked the passing with a yawn.
On my way home, I drove by the farmyard where I had grown up. That triggered memories of riding Old Nell home from school with my brother Barry. She had started to gallop and both of us fell from the saddle. We were badly shaken up, but not injured. Our faithful horse returned to us immediately, patiently just being there for us. I can’t remember what she actually did. Maybe it was nibbling grass. But after meeting Sugar, I now suspect it was a yawn. I remember feeling the horse’s comforting presence and my brother and I gathering our bags, and letting Old Nell walk us home.
Keith Dixon, born and raised in Saskatchewan, spent his working life as a social worker in Ontario. Now retired, he lives in Parkdale Manor in Summerland, BC, surrounded by people from the prairies. His poetry, fiction, and historical writings have been published in Canada. A novel based in Saskatoon is his work in progress. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.