As I gently stroked Sebastian’s muzzle, I felt like jumping with joy. But that would have been the wrong thing to do. He is skittish and uncomfortable with people. Even this brief moment of contact is a tremendous victory.
Sebastian was born at the Trusting Spirit Horse Rescue in Orondo, Washington, and he has spent all of his eight years here. Unfortunately, his mother had been mistreated and didn’t trust people. Even though Sebastian has always been handled with care, his mother taught him the rule he still lives by: human—run.
I’m not sure how Sebastian warmed up to me. Maybe because I stayed calm and quiet, allowing him to come closer on his own. I didn’t try to touch or even look at him; I just hung around the fence and gazed into the distance. I think he became curious. Possibly, he could sense I was trying to make friends.
Initially, I didn’t want to use bribes to earn his affection. Now that he will allow me to touch him, I bring carrots, cut up into little bits. Sebastian knows the rustle of the plastic bag, and he comes to me without hesitation. But once he is finished with the treats, he suddenly remembers he doesn’t like people. Quickly, he steps back, and the safety zone is established again. It could be amusing, but it is actually sad.
I, too, know how it is not to trust. A stranger in this area, even after two years, I still feel like I can’t distinguish friend from foe. I have traveled and moved all of my adult life, so I have no established relationships, no long-standing bonds to rely on.
People do approach me, wanting to make my acquaintance and invite me to an event or two. I go, I participate—but I don’t really belong. After the carrots are gone, so am I. I’m accustomed to staying on the outer margins and not allowing strangers to get too close. It’s an instinct.
Since I started volunteering at Trusting Spirit last year, however, I have begun to feel a sense of belonging. It’s just me and the horses, living in the moment. They accept the hay I set in front of them and appreciate the fresh water I supply. We share the same space.
Here, nobody judges me by my accent or asks where I come from. I can speak or not say a word. If I do use a language, I can use any one I wish. The horses don’t care; only the tone matters. And they always bring out the kindness in me. They soothe my mind and soften my movements.
The horses sense my relaxation. If humans carry an aura, then mine may glow a gentle one when I’m at Trusting Spirit. There is no better feeling than rubbing the smooth sides of the ill-treated animals, finally in a safe place. All of us. I try to think through my fingertips, to send goodness into their being. Maybe it works that way. I certainly feel better from the horse scent and warm nuzzle they occasionally grant me.
Except for Sebastian. He gives me a hesitant sniff and then pulls away. I understand.
WHAT I LEARNED AT THE HORSE RESCUE
Volunteering at a rescue is a great way to spend time with horses. But it’s not all brushing ponies on sunny after-noons. I have volunteered at Trusting Spirit Horse Rescue in Orondo, Washington, for more than a year now. The work has been dirty, hard—and fun. Here are five things I learned:
• The work is physically demanding. The daily maintenance of the horses and the grounds involves wheelbarrows, shovels, rakes and exertion. It is a workout.
• The horses pose behavioral challenges you might never have seen before. Rescue horses may have histories you do not understand. Any horse can be unpredictable, and those at the rescue come from many backgrounds, often troubled ones. Sometimes, what you might consider normal behavior around horses might trigger a frightened or aggressive response. They may kick or bite when you least expect it. So always expect it.
• Patience is vital. Working with rescue horses requires patience and perseverance. They may need to be coaxed into a simple brush grooming or sweet-talked into walking on a lead—any number of ordinary daily activities can be tricky. It is frustrating at times, and even heartbreaking, when they shy away from you despite your good intentions. Give it time.
• It takes a commitment. Routines are important to horses, and once you’ve agreed to a regular schedule, the horses, the owner and the other volunteers will be relying on you to get your chores done.
• Working at rescues is rewarding beyond measure. Horse rescues generally don’t have a lot of money to spare. Expect to receive your thanks in words—and nuzzles. Every time I finish cleaning a pen, despite a few broken fingernails and smelly boots, I feel wonderful! What a difference my effort made! And when the horses who once only stared at me now walk up to me in greeting, it is truly heartwarming. I need nothing else. For more information about equine rescues or to find one in your area, go to ahomeforeveryhorse.com.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #466, July 2016.