Years ago my friend, a horse trainer, was telling me about this horse he’d recently began working with that was showing some quirky behavior. I don’t remember the horse’s name – it’s been well over 10 years now – but in my head I call him as “Pendleton” because his story is about a blanket.* We’ll call him “Pen” for short.
Pen was young and was showing great potential as a jumper and competitor, but seemed to have some anxieties. The owners were hoping my friend could help Pen overcome his fears so he could excel. My friend felt he had a good connection with the horse and they were making progress, but he found one of his behaviors perplexing and kind of funny: Every time he’d put a blanket on Pen, he wouldn’t move from where he was standing.
Pen wouldn’t respond to coaxing or urging – you couldn’t push or pull him off his spot. He’d maybe shift a foot or two, but then step back into position. He didn’t seem to be afraid of blankets, and it didn’t seem to matter which blanket you used or who put it on him. He’d accept it passively, then freeze until you took it off of him. Blanket on, movement stopped; blanket off, movement resumed.
Everybody at the barn found it amusing, and at face value it didn’t seem like a huge deal. I mean, why not just leave the blanket off, right? Well, this was late fall and winter was just around the corner and winters in southeastern Pennsylvania can be unpleasant for the thin- coated. Think damp winds, wet snow and freezing rain and you get the idea. Not fun, even if you’re an animal who’s used to spending most of your time outdoors. And especially no fun if you don’t move around to stay warm.
My friend wasn’t trying to get any feedback from me. He was just sharing a little anecdote from his work day, so I just listened and wished him luck with that, and we moved onto other topics. But after the conversation I intuitively reached out to this horse to see if I could get anything from him, and I did.
Pen knew we’d been talking about him and wanted to know if he was in trouble for something. He seemed very anxious to please. He liked this human – my friend – a lot. I assured him that he was not in trouble and, in fact, everybody was very pleased with his progress. I said the people at the barn were just concerned because the weather was getting cold and Pen didn’t seem to like wearing a blanket. Pen seemed surprised by that. The blanket was fine, he said, so what was the problem?
I explained what the people at the barn were seeing: Pen didn’t move when the blanket was on. Pen responded that this was correct. I asked him why, and he said he was trying to do what was expected of him. I asked him what he thought the blanket was for, and he said it was to have him stay where he was. He showed me an image of being tied to a fence and said it was kind of like that. When the blanket was on, he was to stay put, and so he did.
I just smiled. Can I tell you how much I just love talking to animals? When we have a close working relationship with them, most are so anxious to understand and meet our complicated human expectations. I honestly think most – maybe all – animals’ “behavior problems” are just a result of misunderstandings, not ill will. I told Pen I appreciated that he was trying to the right thing here.
So we talked about what the blanket was for and what to do when he’s wearing it. This took a couple of minutes, but then I felt the light bulb go on and worry changing to relief. He got it. This was not part of some command he was supposed to learn. This was just something nice the folks at the barn were doing to help him stay warm, and he could do pretty much whatever he wanted when he had it on. Even roll on the ground? Yep, even that.
I thanked him for talking to me and told him that I’d tell my friend about our conversation so he’d understand where Pen was coming from. I also told him he was a Good Horse. I could feel him just beaming. It was this warm, fuzzy, happy horse feeling.
After making that commitment to Pen I realized I had a dilemma: How would I tell my friend about this? At that time in my life I really wasn’t comfortable sharing that I could talk to animals because I just wasn’t sure how that news would be received. I didn’t want him to dismiss the message — or me, for that matter. But I’d given this horse my word, and I needed to find a way, so I decided to get a little creative.
The next morning I sent my friend an email about this dream I had the night before where I’d talked to Pen about the blanket. By end of the day I got my friend’s response: “That actually makes sense.”
It was my turn to beam – that warm, fuzzy, happy human feeling.
* Pendleton Woolen Mills of Portland, Oregon, manufactures beautiful wool fabrics, but is especially famous for making gorgeous blankets. My mom used to make my dad these lovely, warm shirts out of Pendleton plaids so I’ve long associated Pendleton wool with love, happiness and warmth. And just a little bit of itchiness.