September 2017 Culture Message

The hug caught me off guard. It came from behind; it was confident, flirtatious, friendly, and brimming with affection. He gently pulled me into an embrace, wrapping his neck around me. I could smell his sweet breath as his whiskers danced across my skin. I felt him wiggle his lips earnestly, gently nudging my hand, hoping that a treat might magically appear. From out of the corner of my eye I could tell that he was chestnut; the question was which one? I had been leaning against the back fence in a “stand-up meeting”, engrossed in a conversation about one of our residents. As I turned, I felt a warm blanket of satisfaction flood me…”Ben!”

Sometimes, the process of hello is a long one, peppered with hills to climb and things to prove. I have come to accept this, and even value the merits of earning back trust that has been shattered. “Ben” and I have been engaged in a very long courtship. He has had a checkered past and carried both baggage and a significant chip on his shoulder. His first career had been as a race horse, and low and behold he had won his share of purses. Because all things do eventually end, Ben’s racing career eventually stopped taking him over the finish line. Rather than a well-deserved retirement, Ben was retrained as a hunter, which is where our paths crossed for the first time. He became a show horse, and while not fancy, was one of those “Steady Eddie” super reliable, honest guys who was a real point-and-jump kind of horse. His good character was rewarded by too many riders, exhaustive trips around the ring, and far too many horse shows. When the competition out-performed him and arthritis and lameness claimed him, Ben, still little more than a commodity, found his honesty and work ethic rewarded by being stepped down into a life as a lesson horse.

Not surprisingly, at some point 5 grams of Bute a day no longer kept Ben sound enough to earn his keep…as defined by multiple daily jumping lessons…and hence it was determined that Ben should be put down. After all, horses are expensive to keep, and Ben was no longer earning his. As luck would have it, Ben and I share a mutual friend, and rather than crossing a bridge prematurely, Ben came to Red Bucket, which was where our paths crossed for a second time. Angry, used up, and most likely feeling the years of a hard life with little or no maintenance, Ben spent considerable time in varying stages of grouchy, crabby, or sulky. During night rounds, when the rest of our residents (and my multiple “boyfriends”) accept treats with anticipation and pointed ears, Ben would resentfully snatch his with a force that stopped just one notch short of hostility.

Rather than walk away, we began a ritual of payment…and pleasure. Ben clearly thought the world owed him something, and frankly I didn’t disagree. Rather than allowing Ben to chase me away, I would stand outside his stall, and with a soft voice that brimmed with admiration and true appreciation, acknowledge him for the wonderful horse he was. The apology also came by way of treats…five to be exact…and they were always delivered with kindness. While a few years have passed, I can see him from my window and he knows that the minute my boots touch the ranch, no matter the pace of my day, I never pass him without acknowledging him. He waits for me now at rounds…and to this day anticipates a treat…five actually! Ben still has expectations, but they are now that of kindness, dignity, and friendship. I will continue to give my friend his negotiated daily treats; I think that there are still many things that I would like to make up for. It is without doubt that our evening “meetings” are meaningful and anticipated by both of us. I remain grateful for my last stop of the evening, and I am pretty darn certain that at this point in our friendship Ben feeds me in deeper ways than I feed him.

This culture message is dedicated to the real “Ben”; you know who you are…and I am watching you from my window.