The Hour of Departure

So the little prince tamed the horse.

And when the hour of his departure drew near–

“Ah,” said the horse, “I shall cry.”

“It is your own fault,” said the little prince.

“I never wished you any sort of harm;

but you wanted me to tame you . . .”

“Yes, that is so,” said the horse.

“But now you are going to cry!” said the little prince.

“Yes, that is so,” said the horse.

“Then it has done you no good at all!”

“It has done me good,” said the horse,

 “because of the color of the wheat fields.”

And then he added:

“Go and look again at the roses.

You will understand now that yours is unique in all the world.

Then come back to say goodbye to me,

 and I will make you a present of a secret.”

Another reason I took Domo was that Aspenite’s days were numbered. I had kept Aspenite going and reasonably comfortable with the help of beet pulp and medicinal marijuana leftovers, but not only was he in relentless pain, his nervous system was slowly but surely short-circuiting.  Aspenite himself knew that his time was coming to an end and set about grooming Domo to take up his duties properly.

Once he had taught the younger horse how to carry himself with pride and to move and present himself to the world properly, he began to turn over his guard duty to him. I first found out how seriously Aspenite took his watch duty when one of my brother’s workmen came to get me.  This was still during probate, and the man was trying to fix up the barn a bit. He asked me to move my horse because, he informed me, he could not concentrate with the horse watching him.  He could feel the horse’s eyes boring holes on his back, and kept having to turn around and acknowledge him. I assured Aspenite I respected his concerns and moved him to where I could help him keep an eye on the situation, and he relaxed enough for the man to be able to finish his task

I set about gaining Aspenite’s trust and respect by being willing to stop and look when he gave me an alert. Following his signals, I became aware of everything from the horny toad that moved onto the property shortly after I gained control of it, to the hawk circling high overhead, to the bee-man coming to tend his hives.  Since like most horses, he communicated with me by head position, body movement, and muscle tension, I remain seriously baffled by reading about so many ‘natural’ horsemanship trainers who are desperately trying to keep their horse’s heads down and their feet moving.  Horses are herd animals who communicate through body language.  In as much as they are prey animals, they are most vulnerable at those locations that they revisit regularly, like watering holes.

Their best defense in those situations is a prodigious memory and an acute eye for details. The most subtle minor change in the silhouette or the shadow of a familiar object could mean a predator is waiting for them to pass.  Since horses have no neo-cortex, it is doubtful that the horse actually is following the many lengthy rationalizations various training methodologies come up with to justify whatever action they think it takes to get the horse moving. I suspect it is much more likely the horse simply decides it must be safe to go ahead and move after a few minutes if no predator has noticed the erratic behavior of the oblivious two-legged slowpoke and tried to eat them.

When the horse is trying to make sure you are aware that familiar things are not as they should be, the surest way to convince them you are an untrustworthy oblivious idiot is to:

  • First, disregard their effort to communicate and
  • Second, try to force them into moving  into a dangerous situation

The more aware and responsive you are, the more subtle their body language can be.  Although Aspenite started out by freezing, throwing his head up, snorting, leaping into the air, and flying around like a giant kite, once he knew I would respond, his cues got more and more subtle.  He was calmest and most relaxed when I was alert to the merest ear flick or head tilt.

Aspenite reinforced my experience that the most effective way to get a horse to settle down and move in the direction the human desires is to mirror their alerts, acknowledge their source calmly, and then relax yourself. Status among my semi-feral Spanish Colonial horses was given to those individuals who were most aware and least reactive. The lead mare and the head stallion who decided when to eat, when to head for water, when to play around, and when to run for your life, were calm, purposeful, alert, and thoughtful in their actions.

They also demonstrated that the other most common cause of a horse freezing with their head up. The behavior occurs when elder horses are striving to tolerate the antics of foolish young things leaping about and demanding attention. Young horses, colts especially, like to wrestle and often endeavor to engage their elders in roughhousing.  Most of the time the response is patient endurance, as the adult stands still, neck inverted, ears turned back, and head up out of nipping range.  In general, obnoxious colts and silly fillies who skittered about with every changing breeze had no credibility with the herd, but neither did the oblivious head-down grass-munchers. Humans who veer between obliviousness and harassment also discredit themselves with their horses. I try to keep in mind that in most cases when the horse is ‘misbehaving’, most useful questions the human can ask are:

  • What could the horse’s point of view entail?
  • How well are we communicating?

Aspenite made sure Domo was on board with the Stop, Look, and Listen routine, and I finally caught on to his plans when I went out to put a blanket on Domo one evening when winter suddenly hit with a blast of freezing rain and wind. In all the time I had had him, Aspenite stayed outside where he could see what was going on regardless of the weather and regardless of how bad he felt. This time, Aspenite was not only bundled up in his blankets, he was asleep in his stall well out of the wind and wet. It was Domo standing out in the freezing rain, soaked to the skin, keeping watch.

I wanted to blanket the horse because not only was I used to Aspenite, who got thoroughly chilled without his blankets in the winter, Domo himself was still recuperating from his injury and had only been at living at our 7000 foot altitude for a few weeks. Previously, he had not only been clipped and blanketed, but had been living  in a much milder climate nearly a mile lower in altitude and a couple of hundred miles further south.  It turned out that not only Domo did not like being blanketed, most of his abuse had occurred in his stall.

I later found out that he was ‘stall-broke’ not ‘round-penned’ so he was introduced to the human propensity to violence while confined in his stall, but at that time I was startled when he took one look at me and my armload of horse blankets and began to spin madly about his small muddy pen in the dark. I figured I was still an unknown factor to him and that he was not pleased at my appearing outside of my usual routine. Regardless, I was worried about his damaged tendon as well as him getting chilled, and was at a loss as to how to defuse the situation when suddenly Domo froze. Nothing moved except for his eyes rolling about in his head.  When I looked over my own shoulder I saw Aspenite’s head peeking out of his stall giving Domo the LOOK.  It seemed that Aspenite felt quite strongly that I should be looked after as well as the property, and Domo never moved as I wrapped him up for the night. In fact, whatever the details of Aspenite’s message were, Domo always allowed me to blanket him in bad weather without any fuss after that.

Aspenite went downhill rapidly once he felt his position had been filled and his duties were being taken care of. He began to drop not just weight, but muscle mass, and his coat become a rough rusty black instead of a gleaming sleek seal brown. He started to get disoriented and restless especially at night, pacing his pen, whinnying, and occasionally running into the wall. When he failed to respond to Domo any better than he responded to me, I called the vet. She said that it was rare in horses, but he appeared to have some type of dementia. Much like Mohammad Ali’s Parkinson’s disease from boxing, it was probably from the head trauma when he was beaten with the police club.  We agreed that she would come put him down when the horse and I were both ready.

Shortly before Christmas, Aspenite began to refuse to eat. I’d bring him his breakfast and he would commence banging on his gate until I opened it up and led him out. He would follow me out of the barn quietly enough, but once out would then throw a complete fit, bouncing about stamping his feet and shaking his head insisting that I was doing something seriously wrong. Then he would stop, and stand unresponsive with his head down and his legs shaking.  I’d ask him if he was up to going back in his pen, and eventually he would heave a great sigh, give me the ‘humans are such idiots’ look, make his way back into the barn where he would return to standing with his head hanging down while facing the corner.  On the third morning of this behavior, I finally realized the gate he wanted open was the big and final gate. He was trying to tell me he was ready to die and he wasn’t able to do it on his own.

Once I called the vet and made an appointment to put him down, Aspenite calmed down and cheered up for the next few days. Although he was not fond of new people, he was quiet and cooperative when the vet came, and went down almost as soon as she got the needle into his vein, releasing his last breath with one long sigh. She told me that even though he did not appear to be suffering, it did seem to be time for him to go as she had never seen a horse die so quickly and with such grace. Telling her I had been maintaining his condition by means of medical marijuana waste put us both at risk, even though it had controlled his pain, dementia, and seizures while keeping up his appetite with no apparent side-effects, so I had to just agree.

I made sure that Domo was aware of what was happening, and could watch Aspenite as he died. Once the vet  left, I got Domo and took him to the body.  He went over his friend from nose to tail, and then seemed relieved enough to go eat for a bit, although he did come out and watch while the backhoe dug a big hole and we buried him. He wanted to check the spot where the body was buried a couple of times that day, but did not begin to whinny and pace, crying out for his companion, until after breakfast the next day.

About mid-morning, I went out to talk to him again and reminded him that he had seen Aspenite die and be buried the day before.  I am not sure how much I communicated with words, and how much with images, intent, and body language, but when I told Domo that if he wanted to talk to Aspenite, he would have to do it by reaching beyond the physical realm, he stopped his whinnying and stood staring at me. I repeated myself emphatically, and he gave me a nod of dismissal, strode over to the corner of his pen, and proceeded to cock a hind-leg, close his eyes, and to all appearances, go to sleep.

He stayed that way for about half an hour and then resumed eating his hay, completely calm and relaxed.  I do not know what he experienced during that time, but I was struck by the fact that he had apparently made his peace with Aspenite’s death, and never called for him again. And I knew I had a very special individual on my hands.

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