Tonka rarely reacts dramatically to the new or the suddenly frightening. He’s a horse, so things will scare him. But if they do, after a brief startle, he’ll thoughtfully assess the situation. Usually he concludes that all is well. Partly this is do to his innate personality. Just like people are introverts or extroverts, shy or outgoing, fidgety or still, so too are horses. Tonka is blessed with sane intelligence. But as we all know, environment and history can add layers of behavior to an animal’s inherent temperament. Because I value Tonka’s even-tempered demeanor, I work on a daily basis to keep his confident, sweet nature at the fore. Tonka trusts me when I tell him that what worries him is not dangerous. I’ll give him a moment to look around to reassure himself that I’m right. If he doesn’t calm down, then I reassess the situation! Sometimes he knows things that I don’t. Almost eight years into our relationship, Tonka is a solid citizen and as sweet-natured as can be. My farrier says that he’s her favorite horse in the barn to work with. What an affirmation of what we do and who he is!
A horse like this can mentor others, and that’s exactly what he’s been doing lately.
There’s a three year-old filly at the barn. Vera. She’s learning how to do all of the things that a young horse needs to know. Stand for grooming. Go in the wash stall. Lunge. Accept tack. Stand next to a mounting block.
At this point, her life is constrained to the paddocks and arenas. In order to be resilient and flexible she needs to venture out. Simply going for a hand-walk in the late afternoon when all of her barn mates are indoors eating their hay is a potentially stressful situation. Enter Tonka. The other evening I rode Tonka while Vera’s owner led the filly behind us. We walked around the paddocks. Tonka startled once at wildlife, which caused Vera to spook sideways. but Tonka settled and Vera did too. The fear dissipated in that fleeting moment and we continued on. Vera was curious. Her ears pointed yet relaxed. We walked around the backside of the arena – which she’s never seen before. Vera did so well that we ventured onto a short path in the woods. Tonka told her that all was okay and she believed him. There was no drama. Just two horses out for a stroll. Our twenty minute walk set the stage for more and longer outings.
There’s another young horse at the barn. A chestnut Thoroughbred mare. Lean. Off the track. She has a fiery enthusiasm that is something her owner wants to channel, not quash. Once again, enter Tonka. The other day she joined us on a hack in the woods. She hasn’t gone through water, and just seeing the huge puddles concerned her. I splashed Tonka through, back and forth. She watched. She wasn’t asked to get her hoofs wet. No forcing the issue. Tonka showed her that water was no big deal and we walked calmly home. Again, it didn’t seem like much. No drama. But that’s the point. These young horses couldn’t have gone where they did, as sanely as they went, without another horse with them. A horse like Tonka teaches the others by being there and being him.
We’ll be doing more of this in the future. Good boy, Tonka!