Stratus was my “horse in a million” initially for all the wrong reasons. She deserves to have her story told – it is a gift to those who work with horses.
I was working as a foaling attendant on a Thoroughbred stud farm in New Zealand when I first met Stratus, and studying part time for my Diploma in Homeopathy.
She travelled by jet plane from Ireland, pregnant, with unfamiliar company, half way around the world where she would now be kept outside with other horses. She’d only known a life of isolation, living in a stable. Being of such high monetary value, it was deemed necessary to keep all finely- bred horses separated to avoid any risk they may injure themselves in the process of living as a group.
I was there to unload her, and after 36 hours travelling by air and road she came off the truck, exhausted. Before me was a rather plain looking mare and even though she was tired, she still had an air of defensiveness about her. Her headcollar was taped with red tape where the buckle lay – never a good sign on a horse as it usually meant they were difficult to handle in some way.
The following days were interesting, and even though she didn’t want to know me, I felt drawn to her. I was met with flattened ears, glaring eyes and a tail that lashed in anger. It was obvious she had a deep mistrust of humans and her defense mechanism was to fight. Her energy was dense and aggressive and I stepped away from her in fear of being attacked. My self- preservation instincts proved to be right as I later discovered that this mare had a sad history of harsh treatment at the hands of earlier handlers. She had learnt to fight and I suspected that was part of the reason why she had been sold on.
Meanwhile the foaling season was due to begin and my day job became a night job; a twelve hour shift from 6pm until 6am overseeing the pregnant mares and supervising the delivery and care of their foals. It was work that I adored and I soon knew every mare and her moods to the point where on a foggy night I could recognise them by silhouette. It was beautiful to watch them appear through the dense mists we often experienced in this area. As I wandered amongst them each night I became part of the herd and twelve hours would pass in a flash.
With her foaling day drawing near, Stratus came to join the other mares. I was apprehensive that first night knowing she was now in my care. She avoided me at all costs so I respected her need for space and kept my distance.
Every night I would walk amongst the mares, saying hello, giving them a gentle rub and checking them with torchlight for signs that they were close to foaling. Every night I would walk around Stratus and say hello, still she wasn’t interested in getting to know me, and told me so by pinning her ears and glaring. Each night I made my circle around her a little smaller carefully checking her reaction to my presence – after all I was her midwife and had to eventually get close to her. Then one night a change took place. I saw the flick of her ear in my direction and a softening of the energy around her – it was the beginning of acceptance.
I knew I was going to have to earn her trust, her instinct to protect herself was incredibly strong. Eventually, one night I stood beside her shoulder, close enough to reach out and rub her gently on the wither. It was a huge moment for both of us, she didn’t move away or pin her ears and accepted my kindness. This was the breakthrough I had been working for and it felt magical. I kept the contact brief – she was allowing me in only a little – I walked away from her feeling elated and full of hope!
In time I could approach her and rub her forehead and attach a lead rope to her headcollar, but always I kept close watch on her reaction to me. Some nights she seemed to enjoy our interactions, and on others she seemed to barely tolerate it.
On the evening she was ready to foal I arrived at work and noticed a change in her, a tension, standing very still, ears back listening to the energy building inside her. Not the usual tension you’d expect of a mare in labour and when I moved to greet her she turned away from me. She was in early labour and wanted to be alone so I respected her need. Knowing there was plenty of time until foaling I left her to check on the other mares.
When I came back to her I heard her waters break and she started to circle around. She looked to me with a softness and vulnerability I hadn’t felt in her before and it drew me to her, she wanted me close. I lead her to the foaling yard (outdoors — under soft spotlights) and let her go. She stayed near, walking around me as the labour increased. If I moved she followed me closely. Soon she folded to the ground and within minutes delivered a fine bay colt. I kept my distance and let the birthing process take its natural course, ready to step in if there complications or to call for veterinarian assistance.
All was well, she nuzzled her colt and in a short time he was up and on the move all spider legged, wobbling and tottering around the yard with Stratus frantically following him. I noticed her becoming agitated and defensive and there was no doubt she now wanted me away from her and her foal. I left the yard and quietly watched her from the other side of the rails. She was on guard, casting evil glares but peppered with short invitations to admire her new colt. Sensing her pride, I praised her enormously, and admired her fierce need to protect her foal.
The next morning she would have to go up to the barn for a routine post foaling check by our vet. This would prove to be a day that humbles me even now.
I offered to lead her over to the barn. It was going to be stressful for her and as I had spent the most time with her I hoped our connection would give her some reassurance.
She wasn’t happy to see me approach but with the offer of food she accepted the lead rope and we were away to the barn with her colt close behind. There were many mares to see the vet that day so Stratus had to wait in the yards next to the others. She was upset by the change of environment. She swung around, herding her foal about the yard, lunging at the mares next door with teeth bared. She was a terrifying sight and I could see how her reputation had been earnt. They say there is nothing quite like a mare protecting her offspring.
As mare after mare filed through the barn for examination I soon forgot about Stratus as I became absorbed in the necessary paperwork and administration required that morning.
My attention was snapped back to the moment however, when I heard a commotion going on out in the yards, there was trouble!
I went out to see what was going on to find Stratus’s yard surrounded by people. They were hanging off the rails, swinging ropes and yelling at her in an attempt to catch her and bring her up to the barn. She was spinning around the yard, barring her teeth and urinating in terror, her foal buffeted around in the mayhem.
She lunged aggressively at anyone who attempted to open the gate and approach her. It was the flight or fight instinct in its purest form and restricted by the yard, her only option was to fight.
I couldn’t help but feel incredibly angry as I took in the hostility playing out in front of me! Anger at the rail hangers’ total lack of horsemanship and compassion for the terrified horse. The time I had spent gaining her trust over the last few months now seemed to have been pointless. People had let her down yet again and I felt disappointed in myself that I hadn’t been there to protect her.
I’m not sure what came over me, but amidst my anger I grabbed a lead rope. Knowing how stressed she was, I calmed myself as I approached her yard. The rail hangers moved aside — never ones to miss the opportunity to gloat at failure – their anticipation was mounting. They were certainly going to make the most of my impending doom.
I stood at her gate and waited quietly until she recognised me. She did and I could sense her desperation. I reassured her I’d look after her and she’d be okay, then opened the gate and calmly clipped on the lead rope. She showed no aggression towards me nor any need to escape. We left the yard with her little colt hugged close to her side and headed to the barn.
There was silence behind me as we walked away, I had left the onlookers gaping with nothing to say. But I was welling up with relief and appreciation of the incredible gift the mare gave me that day — Stratus, despite it all, trusted me! I felt like I had reached her on a level I had never experienced with a horse before, she had looked to me for safety and comfort — it was something special, it was humbling and life changing.
Many years on as a qualified Homeopath, I can think of several remedies that Stratus would have benefited from. A well selected remedy to “turn down the volume” of her flight or fight response may have helped her be less reactive to the environmental and human stress imposed on her. In turn, people may then have treated her with more kindness and compassion. From there, mutual trust would have been possible. Her history was dealing with many layers of stress and abuse, a complex case, but one that would have been an honour to take.
I thank Stratus, she’s given me a depth of understanding that I now draw on with every horse I have the privilege of helping. Many people didn’t understand Stratus, but I hope there were some who reached her, and also benefited from knowing her. She was complex, intelligent and sensitive, a horse that for those that treated her with respect, she gave her heart. It was also an interesting study of human nature to watch other people work with her. She mirrored their soul and looked straight into their hearts, reflecting their true feelings towards her. It was an extraordinary and profound opportunity to learn the depths of the human – horse relationship.
Since writing this article I’ve looked Stratus up in the hope of obtaining some recent photos of her from the stud farm where I believed she still lived. I was sad to find she had already been euthanised. I had many years ago asked if I could have Stratus when she was no longer a viable broodmare. In my heart I’d promised her a forever home on the beautiful hills of the farm where I now live.
I wish her peace.