We brought Jane the baby horse home before we knew that we'd be expecting a baby human this summer, and I'll admit it, once morning sickness (which rarely contains itself to morning) took hold, I wondered if acquiring a colt had been a mistake. I had envisioned spending long hours working with her, getting her used to the halter and gentling her down. Since hobbling out to the corral to throw down some hay often felt like more than I could bear those first few months, it was an unexpected blessing that Jane turned out to be a very sweet and mild soul. "Gentling her down" was the work of five minutes and a hand full of grain. Before she came to us she had run wild with her mother in the mountains of Wyoming, and neither had ever been touched. Disposition goes a long way though, and Jane took on her new life with equanimity. Then a friend asked if we'd winter two colts and we said yes. Friends for Jane.
So, while I did not give Jane the attention I originally intended to, there were not many days when she didn't get at least a little petting, and she had plenty of companionship. All winter I watched the threesome through the kitchen window, playing funny little colt games in the snow, shoving and nudging each other, or simply standing, flank to flank, companionably munching hay.
Spring came, and the other two colts went home to their own pastures. Jane cried out as they rumbled away in their trailer, and though I stood beside her and tried to comfort her, my presence did little to abate her mourning. We put the two miniature donkeys, Orville and Wilbur, in with her, and she appreciated their company. Her calm demeanor returned.
Eventually though, the donkeys got sick of being penned in, and the first chance they got, they made a break for the little pasture and green grass. (And we can blame the pregnant lady for that…she just can't get that gate closed as fast as she used to…) It was time for the grown-up horses to come in anyway, as branding season was beginning, so once again Jane had to make new friends. Wallace, the gray gelding, and Charlie, the dun gelding, are the next youngest working horses here, and they took it upon themselves to remind her she was the lowest ranked member of their herd. She didn't mind, but I did. If I tried to approach her, they would chase her away, nipping and neighing, for fear she might get a treat that, as the older horses, was rightfully theirs. I'd watch them through the window, hands in the dish water, first bullying, then ignoring her. I wondered if she missed her colt friends. But she did not cry out as she had when she'd been in the corral alone. She simply bowed her head, and turned away when one of them approached. After a few weeks it appeared the worst of the hazing was over. Most days I'd see the the three, little Jane standing half as tall as the others, side by side sunning themselves in spring heat.
Where I grew up, people kept horses in stables, in individual stalls, if they kept them at all. It is funny to me now, but when I first moved here, I thought it cruel to have a horse outside all the time, through wind, snow and rain. Now, I feel quite the reverse. Watching horses running together across the open prairie, grazing and galloping as they please -- well, I think it is pretty clear that is the life a horse would choose if they were given a choice.
So what to do with Jane? Just beside her small corral, the grass was growing tall and sweet, and she was still eating last year's dry, brown stems, never getting to run more than a few steps in any direction. Next to the other horses her coat looked splotchy and rough, half shed and discolored, and her hooves were starting to become overgrown from so much standing around. The man of the ranch asked me about turning her out. "She needs it, but I am worried she'll get run through the fence," he said.
"Why?" I asked.
"It just happens sometimes to colts if the other horses get after them."
"What would you do if she was your colt, and not mine?"
"I would put her out," he said.
So out she went, and for a week I watched her buck and play and chase the other horses, and eat green grass, and lay down in the silken dew and rise back up to buck and play some more. On the crest of the eastern ridge beside the little pasture her reddish shape trailed across the horizon behind the silver and brown shapes of her adopted brothers.
Then, a few evenings ago, the man of the ranch came in from the pasture. "I have bad news," he said. "About Jane."
She was hurt. Horribly. The flesh and muscle above her shoulder was torn wide and deep, so that layers of fat and veins were visible. Her slim nose was cut and bleeding, and the hide at the base of her neck was hanging loosely against her chest. To me they looked like wounds from which an animal could never recover. How could tissue so damaged ever heal? But Jane was only limping a little, and she was as calm as ever. She looked at me with her soft brown eyes as I pet her forehead, and when I washed the wound, she did not flinch or try to pull away.
"I don't think I like horses anymore." I told the man of the ranch. "They are too mean to each other."
"They didn't know what they were doing," he said.
"I thought horses were supposed to be so smart!"
He shrugged. Horses will be horses, whether I like it or not.
Jane is back in the corral by the tin barn, finally getting the star treatment I had originally intended to give her. In addition to have her wounds treated several times a day, I cut green grass by hand for her to eat, and brush her back and hips with a rubber curry comb till her lips shiver with pleasure. She shuffles forward or backward, or leans into me as I do this, to make sure I get the right spot, and then reaches her neck out long when I find it. We've also gotten to work with that halter, and she is doing better than I am. Half the time I get confused and put the wrong loop around her nose, or try to swing the loose rope around her neck and miss. As long as I have green grass in my other hand though, she will let me keep trying, watching me with what I can only assume is bemusement.
But she hates being in the corral. She paces beside the fence, looking out to the pasture beyond, and if she catches sight of the other horses, she calls to them with panic in her voice. For now we've brought Wallace and Charlie in to stand in the next corral over, though they reach across the gate to nip at her if she comes too close.
As I prepare to become a parent, I think about the choices we will face as we raise our child. No one ever wants to see their child wounded, and yet, it will happen. We can't keep Jane alone in the corral forever -- or we could, but it would be cruel, and it would break her heart. There was risk involved in letting her out to pasture in the first place, and the worst did happen, but it was still the right choice; and once she is healed, we'll have to take that risk all over again. How else will she learn to be a horse? How else will she ever get to experience the joys of being a horse? I will have to be brave when the time comes -- she won't need to be. If we opened the gate today, she'd run right through it and not look back, just as one day our tiny baby will have to walk out into the big world on his own long legs.
I can't help marveling at the wisdom layered into unexpected events. Having Jane enter my life when she did seemed like poor timing, but it wasn't. I'll go out to work with her today and I will practice once again the hardest skill of all -- learning to let go of what I can't control and accepting that pain and suffering happen. I can not protect Jane from her own instincts, or the instincts of the other horses whose company she craves. I can only apply salve to her wounds, hope they heal, and sing soft words of comfort to her until the day we let her back out. Back out to find freedom in the rolling grass, and her own strong body, loping swift as waves.