Sometimes, a horse just works their way into my heart. I didn’t mean it to happen, but there was one, in particular, that wormed her way into my heart, though I fought it kicking and screaming.
Raja was a bad tempered, ill-mannered mare. As with most livery horses, she was bought at auction so her lineage was questionable - she looked like a Belgian - but I wouldn’t have bet my paycheck on it. What I did know was that she had absolutely no respect for human space and was a bully. She was caught in the pen easily enough, but would run you over as soon as walk beside you. She’d charge the gate when we’d open it to drive the feed truck in and God help you if you didn’t get out of the way. Once she learned the end-of-day routine, she would practically drag any wrangler who had the misfortune of being the one to break her down. Good luck getting her to stop at the tack room to remove her tack. It took two wranglers to break her down; one to stand in her way and hold her back as much as possible, and another to strip off her tack. More than once she attempted to run down the wrangler manning the gate into the pen. Because she was so unpleasant to handle and be around, she got very little positive personal attention. The grooming she did get was cursory at best and it was sometimes a draw as to whether or not she’d get her belly brushed. On days when she felt like it, it was all good. On other days, the wrangler risked getting his or her hand broken by a flying hoof.
Raja was the bane of my existence for her first few weeks at the livery. Then one day I had enough. I was the wrangler unfortunate enough to have to lead her to the tack room to be broken down and she pushed me around and stepped on me one too many times. I had absolutely had it with her and decided we needed a Come-to-Jesus meeting right then and there. The other wrangler who was helping break down just laughed when I said that Raja and I needed to have a little talk. I’m sure that the other wrangler’s money was on the horse, not me. Heck, if I’d been him, I’d’ve bet on the horse too, but I was done with being bullied by this ill-mannered mare.
I pulled Raja to a stop in the breezeway and reached up to grab hold of her halter; I practically had to hang on it to get her to lower her head. Once she did, I got in her face to make sure that she saw me. Then I not-so-calmly told her that I would not tolerate any more of her crap and that, by God, from now on she was going to behave herself. Period. No ifs, ands, or buts. I was finished with her antics and I would make her life a living hell if she didn’t straighten out.
Now, I didn’t think my rant through very well, because, honestly, I’m not sure how I would have made her life any more hellacious than it already was. As I made sure she knew I was there and told her what the rules were, it dawned on me that we had made life as unpleasant for her as she had for us. Not a single one of us wranglers had given her the time of day; we’d written her off as a total loss. We needed her to haul our guests around, but that’s about all of the consideration we gave her because of her temperament. What was wrong with us? What was wrong with me that I could treat a horse so indifferently? I’d certainly not abused or neglected Raja, but I was guilty of doing the bare minimum for her and nothing more.
Raja and I came to an understanding that evening. She was a horse who needed – craved - strong leadership, needed to know exactly what the rules were and needed them enforced consistently. I promised to lay out the rules and enforce them and she promised to try to behave. She and I never became best buddies, but we did develop a mutual respect and gradually my heart warmed up to her. The other wranglers continued to have problems with her; she continued to run them over and step on them and in general, ignore their existence.
A couple of weeks after Raja and I came to our understanding, she had to be taken over to the main livery to have her shoes replaced. I was there when she was unloaded from the trailer upon her return and couldn’t believe my eyes. I knew that it was standard policy to “box” all Drafts, but hadn’t thought much about it until I saw Raja’s eye.
Because there are so many horses who need shoes, the horse shoers (not ferriers) had a policy of putting every Draft horse in the “box”, a large squeeze-chute contraption that the horses were loaded into, the walls closed down tight (squeezed), then the whole contraption is rotated onto its side, horse and all. It’s a quick and efficient way to control a horse and get shoes on all four hooves.
But not all horses like being boxed. Raja was one of them and fought the shoers with everything she had. Even once she was squeezed she continued to fight the only way she could, which was to swing her head side to side and move it up and down. The result was that she came out of the chute looking like Rocky Balboa. Her right eye was swollen almost completely shut and most of the skin was rubbed off.
I could have cried when I saw Raja’s eye. She and I had come so far; we weren’t friends by a long shot, but I felt so guilty about her treatment by the shoers. I wasn’t the one doling out the treatment, but would it have killed those guys to take even just thirty seconds to calm her down before putting her in the box? I know the answer – they had too many horses to do and not enough time to do them. And, honestly, she wasn’t an easy horse to get along with.
The worst thing was that Raja lost a little bit of her spunk and fight after being boxed. The other wranglers didn’t see it; she still ran them over and stepped on them, but her heart wasn’t in it anymore, she just didn’t care. She wasn’t exerting her independence anymore; she just didn’t give a damn.
That, not the eye, was the worst thing that ever happened to Raja. It broke my heart the rest of the season to watch her go about her work and not care. I still took extra care with her and she still responded to me well, but she was well and truly broken. Just thinking about it still breaks my heart and brings tears to my eyes.