We welcomed a new member into the herd in November 2017 : Millie, a 5 year old Connemara pony who looks a little like a unicorn without the horn. Her creamy-white forelock crinkles and shines about her eyes. The beginning with the herd was difficult for her. Clear ways of relating were already in place. The dominant pair-bond Winston, 21,and Ruby, 16, had been together for 9 years and the third member of the herd Dawn, an elderly Shetland pony, preferred my company, or her own, having lost her own pair-bond some months earlier.
Millie had always lived with her half-sister. They were born virtually on the same day, at the same stud, and had grown up together. I was told that they had only ever spent three weeks apart. I knew it would be hard for her to be separated from her mate, I also knew that if I didn’t buy Millie, well, someone else would. In the harsh human world in which she lived imposed separation was inevitable. Such is the power which we humans have over these creatures who, if left to their own devices, will form relationships for life.
So Millie arrived one cold November morning and from the first moment was terrified. She jumped out of the field more than once. In particular she was very worried by the other two horses. She seemed (understandably) bewildered and unsure of herself and the new ‘rules’ in this strange environment without the life-long friend that she trusted. She paired up with Dawn, which gave her some reassurance and company, but this only provided temporary respite as sadly this ageing, sweet pony passed away from natural causes just three weeks later.
Millie, I knew, was now doubly bereaved. For months, for she and I, it was a struggle to connect. She was defensive, protective, sometimes a little wild. I might be accused of anthropomorphism to say that she was also lonely, but that was how it seemed to me, with the older horses keeping her at a distance and she didn’t trust me enough to get close.
Seven months later, as I sat in the field soaking up the morning sunshine and observed the three horses walking away from me, nose-to-tail, down to the water trough, those turbulent winter months seemed an age away. Their tails swished and made shining ’S’s as the light caught the silky strands. Their gait rhythmical, contented, harmonious. The older horses even allowed Millie to drink simultaneously to them, albeit from a very small corner of the trough. They stood together, heads low in relaxation, water dripping off their muzzles.
How easy they are now together, I pondered. Now, between the three of them, things are very clear. When Millie transgresses herd etiquette she is reprimanded – usually just with flattened ears or the sight of a round rump reversing towards her. However if she fails to respond to the clear message a nip or a shove with a shoulder usually follows. She bears marks on her flank to show for it. However she does not take it personally – simply moves away to find a different pile of hay to eat.
While learning to respect boundaries within the herd, she is also learning to ask for what she wants. Yesterday Winston ambled over to me to ask for some scratches in the places he likes to be scratched. He politely presented the exact spots on his back, neck and belly which itched and then turned to offer the same on the other side. It is an old summer ritual of ours and I am always honoured to oblige. As we interacted, I saw Millie approach and watch us curiously from several feet away.
When I moved away from Winston he went back to his hay and she followed me. I could almost see her thinking ‘I wonder if she will do the same for me if I ask?’ Tentatively she offered me her withers. ‘There?’ I asked, scratching vigorously. ‘Or there?’
Thus a new ritual was created and a new level of bonding between she and I. Another small, yet huge step, in the formation of this new relationship.
I was reminded at how long it takes to build up real trust between two creatures or two people. That it grows organically with the seasons. How setting and respecting clear boundaries can help. And perhaps most of all how learning to ask for what we need can transform the degree to which we belong.