If We Let Them
by Virginia Slachman
We had about sixty horses at the Thoroughbred rescue when I first laid eyes on Dorian, an ex-racehorse who’d been adopted then returned. He was lounging in a pasture, lying in the grass and surveying the world—it was an early spring day with low clouds in the cool, gray afternoon. I glanced his way, but didn’t find him all that appealing, to be honest—he was just another chestnut with a white blaze, and we had plenty of those. And, besides, I had a lot of work to do—feeding, watering, taking care of the wounds some of our OTTBs came in with, starting a few of them ready for a new life into a new discipline. Besides, I wasn’t really looking for a horse of my own.
I remember how I’d smile when potential adopters came to the ranch clearly focused on what sort of horse they wanted. They’d likely end up with a little gray mare or some other horse that looked nothing like the big black gelding with a small star the person had come to find. It happened time after time.
Most often, the horses picked their person.
One sleeting, freezing winter day, a woman looking for a trail horse came down. She was sure she wanted a bay. She loved bays, she said, and was just interested in doing a few trails once in a while. So a nice, low-key, bay gelding about 12 years old would suit her fine. We walked the pastures where most of our horses lived in herds and a five-year-old chestnut with a turned in foot and a lump on his head caught her attention.
Did I mention it was freezing outside? And sleeting?
I convinced her to trudge back into the barn to get warm. After her hands thawed, there she went, trotting though the sleet out to the far pasture where that chestnut gelding stood at the fence waiting for her. I think that happened three, maybe four times that day. We’d talk about other horses, but she’d always go back to him.
She took that gelding home that day, and for several years sent texts and photos of how happy they both were, riding along on their trails—the perfect match she’d never have predicted.
And so it was with me and Dorian.
The first moments of our relationship happened the year he dropped a lot of weight and had a bad case of rain rot. I babied him through that, trying senior feed, then soaked alfalfa pellets, and a host of other “put weight on” remedies. His coat got scrubbed with any number of rain rot recipes (I now have a bunch!). He was basically healthy, the vet said, so I just kept at it and by summer, he started looking more like himself. In fact, he got a little chubby.
But I noticed that folks coming to the ranch looking for potential adoptions, never looked at Dorian. He doesn’t look like the classic Thoroughbred—he’s a big boned, big-bodied gelding, not like the elegant, long-legged, sleek Thoroughbreds you normally associate with the breed. Back then, I think he looked more like a quarter horse than a Thoroughbred.
I felt bad for him. I’d gotten to know him nursing him through his weight issue and rain rot, and I began spending time with him in the pasture, noticing what a bright, intelligent eye he had. He had an odd mane, too—there’s a swirl in the middle so the front part of his mane grows forward. He has wispy tail, as well, not the long, full swinging, lustrous tail of the breed. He’s a little stubborn, to boot (just like a redhead, my friend, Anita says), which I felt was ok. I like a horse who has an opinion.
But he was enormously spooky.
In the end, I think that’s what brought us together. We started spending a lot of time in the round pen—lunging, grooming sessions, talking things over, hanging out, . . . But when I started riding him, it seemed the whole world scared him. And why not? All he’d known as a racehorse was the stall, his training track, a horse trailer, the starting gate . . . there are no terrifying falling leaves or rotting devil logs in that life!
Many times we’d be trotting along in a straight line and in the blink of an eye—literally--he’d jumped three feet to the left. Sometimes I had no idea what had scared him. My heart went out to him—how awful to live a life where everything terrifies you.
It was very hard to get him to try anything new, go anywhere he’d never been before on the property. So we took it moment by moment. The whole world slowed down when we were together, and that was hard for me. If he made the slightest effort to do what I asked, the pressure came off and we’d pause. Silence and just standing there in quiet union became our routine and by incremental steps he gained confidence in himself and in me. For once, my focus wasn’t on my fast-paced life, but on his life. And he needed patience from me.
On the trail, I’d sometimes dismount and walk him up to a horse-eating clod of dirt in the middle of the trail. He’d balk, head high, the whites of his eyes showing. It’s amazing, though, what calmness and a few soft words can do for a spooky horse.
It took a long, long time for Dorian to get over his continual bout with the willies. I thought seriously about changing his name to “Mr. Spooky Pants” at one time. But he’s a different horse now.
No, I take that back. He’s regained himself now.
And in the process, he’s helped me find myself, too.
People say the horse is the teacher, not the owner or trainer. I’ve found that to be true. I’m not a patient person. I want my own way, and I can be just as stubborn as Dorian. I’m a bit high-strung, and my mind tends to go a hundred miles a minute pretty much all the time. Or it did.
But as my good friend Glenn says “The slow way is the fast way with horses,” and I’ve found that to also be true. What formed through Dorian and my groundwork, our communing time, our rides, is a partnership, a bond that I don’t think there are words to completely articulate. Anyone who has a deep relationship with a horse will know exactly what I’m referring to—it’s a relationship that resides at the level of “being,” not at the level of “thinking.”
Because I allowed Dorian into my life, he’s opened in me the path to a deep, authenticity and centeredness I didn’t know I possessed. I can be in the worst possible mood, but going out to the pasture and being with Dorian allows me to find a place inside us both where a still serenity abides. We talk together all the time, but neither of us says anything out loud.
In a profound sense, I haven’t really taught him anything. I’ve known for him and with him that he has everything he needs to be simply and perfectly himself, and we’ve gone forward from that. We ride trails together all the time and now he might stop at something new, but he’s able to work through his fear and, trusting me and trusting himself, walk on by. We’ve traversed obstacles, waded into streams, trotted and cantered and galloped through woods, jumped a few Xs, and had a staring contest with deer in the deep woods.
I would love to know what he was thinking that early spring day so many years ago as he lie there, legs tucked under him, surveying his domain. I wonder if he knew we’d become what we have—it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if that were true.
Along the way, somehow Dorian has restored me. That’s part of their power, I think—horses help us reclaim ourselves . . . if we let them. It’s as simple, and sometimes as difficult to do, as that.