Time To Heal

The first time I saw Ben, he looked worried.  He stepped off the transport trailer after a long drive up from the south.  Mustang Sally said he was the most well behaved traveler she’d ever had and I could tell she had really taken a shine to him.  I felt relieved considering I had purchased this eight year old, Paso Fino rescue, sight unseen.  I found him on Dream horse, a popular horse-for-sale web site.  Paso Finos are a Spanish breed known for their beauty, fiery personality and incredibly smooth gait.  His story is worth telling.

Ben had a good start being born in Georgia at a small breeding facility.  His breeding, which was impeccable, was intended to produce a quality show prospect.  His owner hit the jackpot when her mare produced the beautiful dark, perfectly gaited colt.  His black would give way to a light grey with black points.  He had it all, breeding, beauty and the perfect gait for performance.

They named him according to tradition, in Spanish. “Malvado Del Sol y Sombra” was raised and trained by reputable trainers schooled in traditional Paso Fino methods.  It was a demanding, rigorous training but he was the best and deserved the best.  His youth was spent in long hard days forming his body, mind and heart.  He must have been very eager to please, the classic over achiever striving to get it right.  He moved with such grace and precision that at only three years old he was successfully shown at Nationals.  Destined for great things, he was sold at four for a tidy sum to a man in Pennsylvania to continue his training and show career.

The details concerning what happened in the next four years are not known. However, being driven to perform day in and day out finally proved too much for him and he completely shut down, refusing to perform in any way.  Malvado was “ring sour”; the equine equivalent of a nervous breakdown and it was all downhill from there.   Several attempts to rehabilitate Malvado for performance failed.  Each time he was sold and passed from hand to hand, his internal instability was reinforced.  He continued to deteriorate becoming more unstable and finally unable to be ridden in any enclosed arena.  With each sale, his worth plummeted and the small grey horse became more withdrawn.

His last stop before PEACE Ranch was a well-known Paso Fino facility.  After their trainer’s attempts at rehabilitation failed the owner embraced that Malvado needed something they couldn’t afford to give him:  time to heal.  Time is money so facilities like theirs could not give him time off or even explore other possibilities for him.  As a gelding, he was unable to reproduce so retiring to breeding was not an option.  The bottom line was that Malvado’s entire worth was in his ability to perform, and he could not.  So he was listed on Dreamhorse, a national clearing house for all kinds of horses, at fraction of his original worth with full disclosure that this well-bred, well gaited, and well trained individual was mentally unstable and for all performance purposes, worthless.

As I waited for his arrival, I felt compelled to research his name.  Believing that a name carries significance, I was curious about “Malvado” and its meaning. I was surprised to discover that malvado is a Spanish derivative of the word “malevolent” and that his name literally meant “evil doer of the sun and shade”.  A song we sang years ago in church said “I will change your name.  You will no longer be called Wounded, Lonely, Outcast, and Afraid.”  The song went on to illustrate transformation through though the claiming of a new identity like Confidence, and Overcoming one.  Call me crazy but this broken horse needed inner transformation as much as anyone so we changed his name.  His new name was to be, “Benevelo”, or “benevolent one” of the sun and shade, “Ben” for short.  In essence, every time we spoke his name, it would be a blessing toward who we envisioned he would become.

Ben’s struggles were evident right away.  Though warily obedient, anytime anyone approached him, he would lay his ears back in and curl his lips in what seemed to be an aggressive way.  There was no guessing about what he was saying, it was loud and clear, “Keep Away!”  Sadly, he was quite convincing and people were afraid of him and kept their distance making me his only friend.  Ben was also an outcast in the herd and no matter whom he was with, they kick at him and ostracized him.  He truly was wounded, outcast, lonely and afraid.

I decided it would be best just to get to know Ben.  I groomed him, walked with him, sat while he ate grass and he seemed to enjoy our time together but every approach was still met with ears back, lips curled. There was much to learn about him and day by day he told me his story.  He was easily offended and especially did not want to be grabbed close to his face.  He reminded me of a crusty man, aged beyond his years by difficulty.  He was quirky and very expressive. I told him often, “No matter how grumpy you are I want to spend time with you.”

One day, we were out for a walk and we went by the overturned water trough.  I stood on the trough and reached to pet him.  He lurched away with wild eyes which screamed “DON”T GET ON!”  “No problem” I replied, “I wasn’t even thinking about it but can I pet you?”  This turned in to a very long conversation but in the end, Ben stood by the trough while I stood on top scratching his ears, neck and back.  Ben had come to expect that man’s number one objective was to force his will upon him and apparently, he had not appreciated it.  This day, I gave him something new to think about.

About a week later we were out for our walk when I stood on the trough again intending to pet him.  This time he stood very quietly as I stroked him and turning his head, he looked at me he as if to say, “Getting on?”  It was unmistakable.  “No,” I replied, feeling a little emotional at his invitation, “but thank you, maybe next time.” When we did finally go on our first ride I could see what had burned Ben out.  As soon as I got on him, his head flew up and off he went in a frantic fino gait.  He actually did not know how to walk; he had spent his whole career running. Around this time, I emailed the gal I got Ben from to update her on his progress.  She said “I do think his training was pushing him to be a show horse – more brio (hyped up, animated action) under saddle and in the ring and thus he learned to hate it. I thought it was more the “pushing – cramming” it down his throat so to speak but perhaps you have hit the root of it.  It may not come naturally to him. Regardless he does hate it and I think relaxing and learning that it is ok to relax is going to be key to his happy future! I am glad you have the experience and patience to work thru this for his sake.”   Her words confirmed by suspicions.  Ben would need to be allowed to come around in his own time.

It took a year to teach him how to relax and walk when we rode together and, since he could not be ridden in an enclosed arena, we rode on trails.  Routinely, about 45 minutes into our ride he would suddenly stop and not go forward.  He would begin to fuss, twisting, rearing and shaking. This is apparently what happened for trainers trying to fix him.  The interesting thing was that he acted like he was afraid but there was nothing to be afraid of.  His behavior seemed irrational. I fought the urge to pressure him forward giving him time to decide on his own to move out.  It took a while but we developed an understanding and he gets better and better each year.

Ben needed a job, a purpose in life that suited him, something that didn’t have anything to do with what he did (performance) but something that reinforced who he was.  As it turned out, we had a lovely filly born on the ranch that spring and it was time for weaning. Weaning can be a very difficult transition for a young horse and it can help to let them bond with another adult who then stays with them through it.  We decided to give Ben that job and it was a perfect fit.  “Glory” loved Ben right from the start and Ben was the perfect balance of gentle and strict.  She gave him connection and purpose and the change in his demeanor was evident.

Ben was just still quirky.  His sour attitude prevailed but we realized it stemmed from profound insecurity as opposed to aggression.  On our weekly trail ride, he became bright and cheery.  He was like a cross between “the butler” and “Franc” (pronounced frahnk) in the Wedding Planner—extremely proper and equally dramatic.  His communication skills were excellent.  Once, after about a year, I was putting his bridle on before a ride and he would not open his mouth.  This was strange as he had always bridled with no issues and I was certain there were no extenuating circumstances as the vet had just checked his teeth and they were fine.  Again, he looked at me with such intensity that I responded out loud “ok, we can go without it if you will behave”.  From that day on forward I began to ride him bride less and eventually with no saddle but rather with a simple bareback pad, halter and lead rope.  However, I am the only one he will let stay on.  Others have attempted it has not ended well.   Ben asks every rider in his unique way if they can be trusted.

One day last year I was out in the pasture with Ben and the rest of the six horse herd. The horses were close together and a squabble broke out among them.  Before I knew it, I was caught in the middle of a kicking fight, standing at Ben’s rear end, in point blank range.  Ben was also caught in the middle and was now a target considering he is still low in the herd order.  He was desperately trying to get away and needed to defend himself from another horses.  I was pinned so close to him that I felt him lifting his leg as he began to wind up for a kick and I instinctively yelled his name.  Ben stopped – mid kick, taking a strong kick from his assailant.  Getting clear of danger, I hugged Ben, thanking him for not nailing me.  Until this point I had never been very sure about Ben.  His sour faces, quirky habits, and dramatic personality always left a little room for doubt but now, I had truly seen the Benevolent One, good and willing to take a kick for me.

This fall, our friends from Mission Point, an adult foster care home, were visiting the horses by the fence. While the other horses were stand-offish, Ben was the first one to the fence to visit them.  He greeted each resident ears forward, walking down the line up of hands and faces eager to pet and hug. The pressures of performance had almost crushed Ben but he found healing through patient acceptance and overcame by caring for someone who needed him.  His life is not what it was, climbing the performance ladder to success with the best of the best.  It is a simple, peaceful life but one in which he has found purpose and meaning.

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