Jesse and I aren't alone together often. Even when we are alone, I'm usually in a rush and don't take time to give her the attention she requires to be cooperative. Jesse is an Arabian mare, a beautiful creature, a bay weighing nearly a thousand pounds. The most distinguishing feature about her is that she is queen of all she surveys among her small herd of horses. She is the alpha, a headstrong animal, only to be dominated by real horsemen. When her ears go back, the other horses move to her command.
Horses are ruminants and prey animals. Jesse and her herd live with my son Rich and his wife Michelle on their farm in Johnston with large green pastures and a stout barn to protect them. There is no apparent need for her to be fearful of predators, but nature hasn't told her that. She is always on the alert.
I'm not a horseman and too heavy to ride most horses of a normal size. I am, however, a sometimes caretaker (read stable hand) of the horses left at the farm when my son and his wife go trail riding on weekends in the hills of Ohio or Pennsylvania and occasionally on three-week-long rides in the mountains of Wyoming, Colorado, Tennessee or Virginia.
Recently, I had the care of the two remaining horses for a weekend. There is a large plastic tub under a shed roof at one end of the barn. The intent was for Jesse to take her hay from one side of the tub and Blue, a mild-mannered, nearly 1,200 pound Missouri Fox Trotter gelding, from the other. There is a hot wire that defines the two halves to help make clear whose hay belongs to whom.
I am usually in and out quickly, feeding the horses, cats and dog. I check the water troughs, hay supply, muck out the walk-in stall and give the floor a sweep. One day, through a slit opening in the sliding door, I saw Jesse's brown rump on Blue's side of the tub. Usually, I would let that sort of thing go. The horses will work it out. This time I decided to intervene. I opened the door, and sure enough, Jesse was eating the hay intended for Blue, while Blue was standing some distance behind her in the paddock looking uneasy. Blue is a gentle horse and a pushover for the likes of Jesse.
I walked slowly and confidently toward Jesse, in a tall, erect posture around the tub, not saying a word, eyeballing her all the while. She was ill at ease seeing me come toward her. I extended my right arm with my hand in a firm "stop" position. She backed up into the paddock as I advanced. I stopped, looked at her steadily without moving with my arm still extended in an authoritative position for a minute or so. Then, when she became calm, I lowered my arm about 45 degrees, with my palm still visible, quietly motioning her to me. She approached and just barely allowed me to touch her muzzle with a couple fingers. I then held my cheek against her face, stroking her neck slowly. I carefully put my right hand under her chin and walked her back to her side of the tub. Blue returned to his side. I left the barn, got in the car and drove home.
This experience was a far cry from when I first met Jesse some years ago. She entered the barn like a freight train under full throttle, heading for the grain in her stall. My son didn't want me to allow her to enter the barn that way. He said calling out "ho" in a calm, firm manner is the way to stop her. And more important than words, is an assertive, relaxed manner, which says to the animal, "Easy does it. I am in charge now." I become Jesse's alpha for the moment.
I enjoy being with the horses from time to time, becoming acquainted with their nature and mannerisms. Each horse is different. It is a rewarding experience and a pleasant hobby, learning from my son and his wife how to manage a challenging animal.