The gift of friendship

Horses teach us how to do a better job in relationships by demonstrating the power of trust, empathy and forgiveness.
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It is hard to watch my horse, Lady, lose her friends over and over again. Every few months since I’ve owned her she’s been separated from her latest BFF. We’ve moved barns. She’s changed pastures. Her buddies are taken to another barn. One pasturemate died.

She doesn’t understand any of this. Well, perhaps she understood the dying. That was the one time when the loss of a friend didn’t lead to calling and frantic searches.

Usually, however, it’s the calling and searching. Yesterday, she insisted we check every single nook and cranny of the barn. Because maybe, just maybe, her friends were hiding there. She’d been with one of the two horses who just left for 18 months. When the third horse moved in, they all became fast friends. They’d nicker whenever one would be let back in the gate after a ride. All three of their blankets were filthy on the withers from the love rubs. But then their owner moved both of Lady’s pasturemates away.

I thought she would adjust to their absence after a couple of days, but she’s still checking behind the run-in to see if her friends are there. It is breaking my heart to watch her desperation. Because this is my story, too.

I’ve rarely had friends who stayed in my life for more than a few years. I’d leave for a new school. I’d change jobs. My friends moved away. And I understand little of why I can’t seem to keep friends like other people do. I envy people who seem to bond for life.

Recently, I’ve maintained a few friendships for a record amount of time. But I keep bracing for each of them to end and worry about how I’d then go about making new ones.

Luckily for Lady, that’s just another thing we humans handle for her. The barn owner just moved an elderly gelding into the pasture, and he was instantly smitten with my young, blonde mare. Lady will soon become fast friends with her new pasturemate, and her searches for her former buddies will stop.

Fortunately, she won’t worry that her new aging friend will pass away in the not too distant future. She doesn’t know she’ll face more days beset with loneliness and stress. But I’ve come to trust that we’ll find her someone new.

I wish I had the same faith for myself. Horses are who they are. They are honest about their emotions and their state of mind. People, not so much. Today, we all have advanced communication devices in our hands, yet it is horses with their simple gestures and sounds who create bonds and relationships that are truer and more straightforward than our own. I wish it was as simple for us as putting an ear back when you’re angry or a cocked hoof to threaten a kick. I wish I could signal that I like you and see that you like me, so let’s be friends and go eat some hay.

I’ve realized, though, I have one advantage my horse doesn’t. We humans can choose to hold onto the friends we value if we put our minds and hearts into it. We can make the effort to keep in touch with the ones who are far away. Horses have to roll with whatever changes we impose on them. And yet ironically they teach us how to do a better job in relationships as they show us the power of trust, forgiveness and empathy.

Making and keeping friends has become easier in the years since I started riding. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. As I’ve watched my mare form new bonds every few months, I’ve learned a thing or two about friendships myself. Including how much they matter.

This article first appeared in the June 2017 issue (#477) of EQUUS magazine

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