Young things of any species are born pretty much wild. Full set of instincts and natural impulses, evolved to maximize survival. In mammals: suckle reflex, and imprinting on nurturing unit. Just about everything else develops with age and education.
With horses, the development is both fast and slow. Fast in that the foal is up and ready to run within an hour or two; by twelve hours old he’s pretty mobile, and has, if healthy, received his passive immunities through his mother’s colostrum, learned to stay at her side wherever she goes (and she will drive off other horses as well as predators with instinctive ferocity), and developed enough speed to have least a fighting chance of escaping from any loitering predators. But it will be years before he’s physically or mentally mature–more years than many books or common knowledge may indicate.
Common knowledge says a horse is fully grown around age four. Plenty of books repeat this truism. And it is true, insofar as he’s reached most (though in most cases not all) of his adult height. But he’ll be growing in smaller increments for years, and filling out and gaining body mass and mental maturity until he’s as old as twelve or thirteen–though most are pretty well done by eight or ten.
That’s a long time in dog years.
All of which is by way of saying that one slightly premature foal lying wet and hypothermic in sleet-wet straw survived birth in a winter storm, learned to stand and nurse (a little slowly because of the hypothermia), and grew up healthy and perfectly sane except for a not at all unnatural objection to ever being cold again–and that foal, now an adult horse, has taught me a great deal about a great many things, including today’s theme: maturity.
He was, and is, my first stallion. That’s a bit different than raising a mare (who has her own challenges) or a gelding (who, in general, is from heaven). He’s driven by a different set of biological imperatives.
In the spring and early summer, the ladies’ collective wish is his command, and if there are foals, he’s as fierce in their defense as their mothers. The rest of the year, his moods wax and wane according to which of his ladies is in season–mostly they shut down around about October and start up again along about March, but some cycle all year round, and he’s an infallible indicator of their hormonal status.
When he was young and I was learning how to cope with these shifts of mood, there were some rough spots. I learned never to walk up behind him as I would with any other foal I had raised, making sure he knew I was there (as every wise horse person does), but not expecting any problems as long as he had fair warning. If the hormones were running, there was no such thing as a fair warning. He would kick, and when I went down, kick again–pure instinct, with no consideration for the fact that, in most situations, I was his chosen person.
Likewise I learned never to just walk between him and his mare. And never to find myself in a closed space with loose stallion and mares in heat beyond the fence. His priorities were set by instinct: guard herd, breed mares, defend foals, kill intruders.
For some years, I didn’t even try to ride him in breeding season. Better part of valor. I handled him every day, impressed on him that I was head mare, but the riding part was a bit more challenge than I was ready for–especially with the very fearful, anxious trainer I had at the time. Once the spring hormones had died down, I would get back to work with him, and there were learning experiences of the “don’t ever go off balance on that one’s back or he’ll buck you to Tattooine” variety, but mostly we muddled along until spring came again.
Don’t get me wrong. He was, hormones aside, a very reliable horse. Not at all spooky. Loved to go places, hauled beautifully, and away from his mares, was a lovely and focused partner. We could haul him in a scrap of a trailer with a two-year-old stallion of much more uncertain temper, and he had that raging adolescent falling over himself to be as good as the big guy (who was about two-thirds his size, but my stallion is close to eighteen hands on the Other Side).
Still. At home, he could be challenging, and sometimes dangerous. I learned to predict the eruptions, and gradually to defuse or evade them. They were never random. Always, if he was in a Mood, there was a mare in heat, or an intruder in the herd, or another good and sufficient reason for him to switch over from solid working partner to herd stallion.
Meanwhile, fearful trainer drove off into the sunset, and we came under new and more positive influences. Fear gave way to respect–confidence without cockiness. Knowing what he was likely to do in different circumstances, and knowing how to manage his moods and instincts, and how to stay safe when the hormonal tides ran high. And I started riding him even in breeding season, because I was more confident in my ability to cope, as well as to judge when it just wasn’t worth it.
And one day I realized that we were riding along, and he was swelling up, and starting to squeal, and snorting explosively, and I just laughed. He was still under control. He just had to blow his trumpet a bit. A couple of seconds of that and he went on peacefully, no fuss, no further eruptions.
That was a nice moment. Amusing, too.
This year, we’ve had plenty of those, but there’s been something else as well. Something new, for this particular horse. He’s still a happy stallion, loves being what he is, knows who he is, rules his ladies with grand bravura.
But he’s been turning to me more often, welcoming our more frequent work sessions, acting as if he’s actually finding relief in them from the constant barrage of hormones. He has, for years, been lively or even obstreperous in hand but perfectly businesslike when ridden, but that’s risen to another level. He’s calming down noticeably when worked, and keeping that calm afterward–though get the ladies calling and he’s back to his stalliony self.
The other day he was so full of nervous energy I opted not to ride, since there was no one around to scrape me up if something went wrong. I worked him in hand and on the longeline instead, and he was exemplary. Then, while I cleaned his stall, I turned him loose to run at will–and he ran himself into a lather, calling for mares.
I came to get him, which took a minute or two–but finally he came to me and stood to have the lead snapped onto his halter, and we did a bit more work in hand, and he let out a big sigh, as horses do when they’re releasing tension. That’s what he wanted. He wanted the structure and the control and the relief from the hormones.
I think I’ll call that maturity. He’s still and will always be what the old horsemen call a lot of horse, and on his own time he’s as full of it as ever, but he’s looking for the calm and the stuctured work that the human element can provide. It smooths the edges. It focuses him in ways he seems to need.
It’s been an interesting process. Many bumps in the road, some interruptions, and quite a few Learning Experiences. I’m fascinated to see where we go next.