My seven year-old niece visited recently and really wanted to take my horse, Chaco, for a walk. After finishing the barn chores, we took a grooming bucket and halter out into the field and went looking for Chaco. We found him taking a nap enjoying the dry afternoon of no rain.
He was caked in dried mud from the day before, and we began the process of brushing all of it off of him. Yes, we could just halter him and take him for the walk, but the day was dry. His hair was dry, and the mud was dry enough to brush it out. Since it could rain at any moment, we decided to go with brushing him out first.
There was so much dried mud that plooms of dust encircled him as we brushed. You had to keep your mouth shut, lest a mouthful of grit and dirt got in. Soon we cleaned him up, and he was still enjoying his quiet time napping.
I showed my niece how to gently place the palm of her hand on his coat and just breathe and relax. As she did this, I instructed her to watch his eyes. If they blinked or started to close, then he liked how and where she was touching him. If they stayed wide open, then he didn’t like it. In that case, I told her to lighten her touch, or move her hand over a millimeter or just breathe and relax more herself.
This became an ongoing dance with Chaco. At times, he closed his eyes completely. Other times he held his eyes open. At one point we decided to give him some space, so we stepped away from him.
She then asked, “Can we take him for the walk?”
I responded, “Yes, we could, however, when you look at Chaco right now, what is he really enjoying?”
“His nap,” she acquiesced.
I explained further, “With horses, you may come with a plan to do a particular thing, but if they present a different opportunity to you, then I’d take what they offer. You never know when that offer will come again.”
Despite really wanting to go on the walk, my niece understood, but was disappointed.
Seeing how I might be able to cheer her up, I asked, “Have you ever kissed a horse at the base of their ear? It is the most heavenly spot.”
She never had, so I picked her up and stood a few feet away from Chaco in front of him off to one side. As I held her, and before we approached, I explained the details of being around the head of a horse, where it could move suddenly, and how to keep herself safe, if he were to move.
No sooner had I finished the safety talk, that Chaco lifted his head up out of his nap and stretched his neck out toward us, putting his whiskers and muzzle ever so gently against her cheek and breathing on her. His eyes were soft, and he was curious about who this little girl was, checking her out and taking her all in. We stayed there, not moving an inch, and just savoring this gift Chaco was imparting to her.
When Chaco was done my niece said, “He gave me horse kisses.”
“Have you ever experienced that before?” I asked.
“No,” she replied.
“If you had to pick between horse kisses and a walk, which one would you pick?”
Without hesitation, she said, “Horse kisses.”
“Aren’t you glad we didn’t go for the walk earlier?”
“It is because we honored his nap and went along with what he was already doing, that the opportunity came for him to give you the gift of horse kisses.”
Those horse kisses became the highlight of her visit. To be fully acknowledged and accepted by a 1000 lb. animal just out of their own curiosity is a magical experience. It is what keeps me coming back to them. It’s why I shovel manure in the rain, why I get up early to feed them, and why I spend hours researching how to improve their health.
You never know when the magic will happen, but if you spend time just being with them with no agenda or expectations, they will surprise you over and over. That is the world they live in, and when I get a glimpse of it, it makes the commitment to them all worthwhile.