I recently took on a boy called Tycho, a two and half year old hand reared colt, now gelded, and the reactions I got were very mixed. I say mixed, only one person, a friend who has brought up a hand reared foal before, said go for it.. everyone else thought I was insane to go near him, even my more enlightened friends. It got me thinking about what chances a horse gets or doesn’t get according to his past.
Whether a hand reared/bottle fed horse comes about due to a genuine emergency or imprinting gone wrong, the effect seems to be much the same. They usually end up with an oral fixation and if they weren’t put in to mix with other horses, they have absolutely no idea how to be a horse. This is where things can get sketchy. Michael Peace, a well respected English trainer speaks of hand reared horses in terms of them being outside the sphere of his knowledge, due to the fact he is trained in a certain type of horsemanship, that doesn’t cater for a horse with needs that might make him display behaviours outside the sphere of normal horseyness. So I’m guessing his readers will be coloured by this not uncommon opinion. I’m not picking on Michael, but using him as an example of an esteemed professional with an opinion on these matters. I didn’t realise people were so worried about these horses until I talked about going off to work with one and then taking him on myself. It was clear no one was going to take him, despite his beauty. In fact, when I went to get him I found stuffed in the barn a sign that said “COLT” with an arrow on it. The owner told me lots of people had been to see him but I didn’t realise there had been open days! Apparently he tried to mount one girl, the only girl who would go in with him. Everyone else refused to go into the field. This horse had had this for two and half years. Is it any surprise that he had no idea how to be with people? And he lived with a mule, so had no idea how to be with horses either.
But what is it about hand reared horses that frightens people so much? Other than the first impression of a slightly hectic horse? I guess if people see that not even Michael Peace will work with one, then they don’t want to either. And who can forget the hand reared stallion from the Buck movie? That movie probably didn’t help the cause of hand reared horses too much! But the boy I took on isn’t so bad. He’s over at Delismurf now, and though you feel you should keep an eye out when wandering around doing the chores just in case he comes bombing up to play, he’s a lot different than when he was at his old home. 10 days, some crusty mares, a couple of geldings that think they’re Vin Diesel and a couple of miniature colts that have no idea that they’re miniature, and he’s completely mellowed. It’s only a matter of time before he becomes one of the gang, and before biting people in the head, stealing their shirt and trying to play “Let’s All Rear At Each Other” becomes a distant memory. Not because I’m running around showing him who’s boss, and dominating him, and chasing him around, but just by leaving him be, letting him settle, letting him learn by copying the others, letting him be a horse.
I won’t be hitting him in the face when he bites, I won’t punish him with a whip, I won’t send him away, I won’t run him in circles and I won’t teach him to be a “quiet” horse. You know what a quiet horse is? It’s one that has been taught by humans to adhere to a way of being that suits them. The unruly ones that keep their spark are sold on and on until someone buys them that is willing to be dominant enough to calm them. Calm them enough to ride, enough to be a child’s pony, enough to take them where they want to go, to compete, to show, to load, to hack quietly, to not be scared of traffic; in short, to be “safe” for the human. Does anyone stop to think about the effect this process has on the horse? Do we really want to suppress our horses to the point of roboticness? Are they really there just for us?
I saw someone recently demonstrate his horse staying dead still as he did the Ice Bucket challenge on its back, inspired no doubt by all the people doing it on YouTube and their horses running off. But what did he prove? To me he proved that it’s not only possible to robotise your horse, it’s also possible to desensitise him to anything you like, providing you take his voice from him completely. He also proved that the horse was WAY down low in his list of priorities, yet he’s a self proclaimed horseman. Define horseman….
This is what I love about Tycho. Yes, he was hand reared, but then he was put in a field and untouched. So now I am faced with this 30 stone toddler, all 14.2 of him and growing daily.. who wants to eat my head, my clothes, my hair, my hands, all under the close scrutiny of humans who want me to eat my words. He is as pure as you’re going to get. A rising three, blank canvas. He will never be a quiet horse, and to attempt to make him so would be an absolute travesty; a waste of an impetuous and loving heart, unspoiled and honest. It would make him not a horse. I wonder why we get into horses and then try to make our horses not be horses?