I went out to feed the horses on a mild Sunday morning. Making my way down the race between the giant Totaras, I found our 11-week old foal in distress. Her sides heaving, a river of liquid poo running down her back legs, she stood pinned to her mother’s flank, body wracked with tremors, fighting for all she was worth.
Horses are prey animals. They’re hard-wired to mask weakness; their lives depend on it. It’s entirely possible that the only question a horse ever asks is, “am I safe?”* Even at 11 weeks, the foal knew she should hide her weakness or be picked off by wolves. On quaking legs, Fifi — short for Fiammetta, Little Flame — repeatedly bunted into me and nearly knocked me over with the force of her will as I struggled to assess her condition.
I have the vet’s mobile number on speed dial. Even though it was early, and Sunday, I rang, and the vet attended within the half hour. By afternoon, we had trailered the mare and foal to Massey’s equine hospital. Placed on a continuous IV drip of fluids, steroids and antibiotics, Fifi stood separated from her mother by a low wall that divided the stable in two. The mare could just reach over to sniff or nuzzle her, but the IV line which descended from the ceiling and shunted into the foal’s delicate neck, was protected. The fever and infection raged on and by nightfall, she was blind. The results came back the following day: Salmonella. The foal killer.
Observation is the basis of the scientific method. It is also the basis of creative writing. Xenophon, in his critical thesis The Art of Horsemanship (362 BCE), relied on observation to render his compact and lucid view of the horse as a foal, in training and in war. Xenophon is surprisingly modern and relevant thanks to his keen eye and some elegant truths about the nature of horses which still endure. The art of horsemanship has been posited and lost, rekindled and lost again and again throughout the ages.
Much has been written about horses. From overtly sentimental novels aimed at pre-teen horse mad girls to saucy bodice rippers set in the world of high-stakes show jumping, fiction is littered with books about horses—or more accurately, books about the people who ride them. There are dozens of memoirs about women, often of a certain age or vulnerability, who have been saved by a horse, and still others about people who have rescued horses only to be transformed by the arduous process of rehabilitation. Some of these books are marvellous: insightful, generous, lyrical. But they are all books about people. Horses are simply the vehicle for an intensely human story.
I am interested in the horse: how we perceive horses, how we relate to them, how we talk about them and how we use them—and how we might let them stand on their own, without bias and prejudice, and simply be horses.
I was alone on the farm that morning. I called in every favour, finding someone to help me load and drive the mare and foal to hospital, someone else to come and take the dogs for the day. Someone else, still, to attend to the rest of the horses. While waiting for the vet, I put a little halter on the foal and tried to walk her around—believing that if she collapsed, she might give up because this is what prey animals do—but she wouldn’t move away from her mother. I haltered the mare instead and walked her in slow arcs around the paddock with the foal pitching unsteadily behind.
I’ve had horses for years. I’ve been present at births, and I’ve stood at the side of elders as euthanasia drugs were administered. I ride and train a little, and I make room for damaged horses to heal and old horses to retire. We live at the foothills of the Tararuas a mountain range at the bottom of New Zealand’s North Island. Our little farm is cradled by an ancient stand of Totara trees. Our paddocks are lush and fertile. The birdlife here is amazing, their chorus a nonstop playlist of bell and whistle and screech.
The little foal lived. She was blinded for a month, her eyes clouded yellow and lustreless like the kind of opaque marble you’d never take in trade. Every couple of hours, two vet nurses unhooked the IV and guided her around the wall divider so that she could drink from her mother’s swollen teats. She was often too weak to latch on. The mare’s milk contained all the antibodies required to fight, but at 11 weeks, the foal had not yet received all that was needed to defend against Salmonella. 12 weeks is the rule of thumb. When Fifi emerged from hospital, some of her sight beginning to return, shel was scraped and bruised all over from stumbling into walls and doorways. Her muscles weak from dehydration and lack of exercise. The delicate skin on her hind end angry and red-raw from the caustic diarrhea that continued throughout her hospital stay, her joints swollen and misshapen from the drugs that saved her life. But the most gut-wrenching thing of all was this: blinded and caged, Fifi had learned to read the limits of her world with the tip of her muzzle. What was once a simple milk-seeking reflex was now her main way of navigating the world.
To understand horses, you need first to understand anatomy and physiology. Xenophon knew this and devoted his first and final chapters to the points of the horse: body parts, proportions, angles, the set of the head and neck, the set of the tail, and so forth. Observational science.
A horse’s whiskers, the vibrissae, are an extremely sensitive sensory organ. Like many mammals, horses rely on their whiskers to feel their way in the dark. Horses also use them to seek out food and water, to determine where things are in the space around them. It is not uncommon to see a young horse explore the world around her by stretching out and gently touching or rubbing her whiskers all over a newly discovered object. And brain science tells us that this curiosity causes dendrites to branch and the brain to grow.
You would think Fifi would have become frightened of people from all the poking and prodding with fingers and needles and the excessive handling in hospital. You would expect her to be flighty and standoffish. Wary and untrusting. But, no. Quite the opposite. She wants to climb into your pocket, to rub her muzzle all over you—to map with her whiskers your face, hair, neck, all the warm spots and even the sweaty ones—and huff in your very breath. Fifi no longer knows how to be just a horse. She has become a centaur; an impossible creature living between worlds.
* The question of horses asking “am I safe” was posed to me by Anna Blake, an affirmative horse trainer and brilliant coach and teacher. You can check out her blogs and training resources at: