Natures role in shaping the horse has long been a loved topic of reflection of mine. Recently, I’ve become even more fascinated because I’ve had the privilege of working with a feral horse. I say privilege because this mare has caused me to re-examine what I’ve learned from working with free ranging domesticated herds in ways I could have never imagined. She’s become the horse I’m most grateful to have met.
When I first saw Sera (as I’ve come to call her after the song,(Que Sera, Sera by Doris Day), she was wearing a rope halter with the lead rope dragging behind her on the ground of her paddock. There must be quite a story behind how she came to wear that halter because Sera is untouchable, equally afraid of adults and children alike. By the time I came to know her, she had learned to nimbly navigate the impediment the lead rope created for her. I was impressed by how easy it was for her to work around that rope at any pace.
In fact, it was her careful sense of her body that led me to take a chance on her (that, and her willingness to take dewormer down with her feed!). My concern in bringing a horse like her home largely centered on what I would do if she became injured. After watching her for several days, I discovered that I believed in her ability to take care of herself. While afraid of people, she was sensible and didn’t have a mean bone in her body. I was also struck by her willingness to investigate new objects, suggesting that she’s naturally curious. My belief is that this quality will enable her fear of people to wane over time. My job is to pave the way.
After we got her home, the first thing that struck me was how quickly she could coordinate her limbs across new terrain. As soon as she had a bigger space to work with, she exploded into a gallop and tore around the perimeter to establish her new boundaries. I’ve turned countless horses into this same small pasture, and they always run about in the open center, taking the path of least resistance. Sera’s route led her straight through a crop of trees along the fence line that she handled like a gymnast. I can’t stress enough how uniquely she can move at break-neck speed over and around trees.
If you’re envisioning this scene akin to anytime you’ve seen a horse in flight mode running haphazardly, with what appears to be little regard for their well-being, I wouldn’t blame you. This, however, is not how Sera moves. She currently runs with our herd on the quarter and sometimes cuts through the trees, leaving the other horses in her dust. In over six months, she’s never had so much as a scratch or caused a single twig to snap or crack. She’s a picture of quiet moving, self-aware agility.
Sera is also the only horse to have successfully ambushed our lead gelding. When Sera first met Skyler, she spotted a moment when he wasn’t paying attention and lunged at him intensely, nipping at his neck. She took no hair but made her point memorable. He was quite shook-up but hasn’t been caught unaware since. This story may give you the impression Sera is something of a dominant personality, but she’s actually far from it. She’s a mid-ranking horse that stays out of the way of the dominant temperaments and exhibits the subtlest social cues in the herd. Even before she joined the herd at large, Sera was equally cooperative with a horse named Roamy in the small pasture. I’ve nicknamed her the diplomat as a result.
So why challenge the lead? Sera has become so wild, I believe nature has had the opportunity to condition her to pay attention to the things that matter to her survival. One of those key behaviors is to maintain eye contact with herd mates while simultaneously keying into the surrounding environment. Even when engrossed in grazing, a horse has to be able to join the school of fish movements herds follow at the drop of a hat. Sera’s challenge to Skyler was to improve his focus, a social skill that ultimately shapes the group to be able to flow in concert. It’s likely her upbringing produced a sharper focus than Skyler’s domestic home created for him. Fortunately for Skyler, he’s a quick study.
As I mentioned, Sera is much less demonstrative with the other horses. Perhaps she didn’t grow up jockeying for a place at the water trough or securing a flake of hay? I suspect that the pecking order we are so accustomed to in domestic horses is largely invisible within wild bands. The contrast between Sera and my domestic horses highlight how housing and feeding practices can unintentionally strengthen the fight/flight response, even so far as to disconnect it from it’s counter-weight in nature: the need to conserve energy. I believe that the more we design environments for horses around the needs of people, the greater the likelihood this effect will be magnified in our domesticated horses.
You’re probably wondering how Sera’s battles with that lead rope ended. All on her own, under the cover of night, she slipped out of the halter. We found it on the ground of her paddock, knots intact, the following morning.