This is the sight that greeted me this afternoon when I pulled Grimm out of his stall for the last hand-walking before his soundness check tomorrow. The weather at 4:30 was overcast and too cold for a bath ... and the vet is coming immediately after work tomorrow afternoon. I was going to have to try to get him back to white and presentable again with nothing but a good brushing -- and anybody who has ever had a white horse knows exactly how successful that ends up being.
"Bad horse," I grumbled as I fastened his halter and glared balefully at the wet paddock out the back of his stall. There's been just enough rain to make that beautiful, black Washington dirt stick to him like an all-over mud facial ... but thankfully not enough to turn it into a morass and force him to be locked in. At that moment, however, I would have preferred him to be locked in. At least his shavings were clean.
Rolling in the mud is a perfectly normal equine behavior. I know this. I know that it's good for his skin and coat, REALLY good for his back, and the only harm -- a dirty coat -- is merely an inconvenience to me, but that one perfectly normal act of being a horse got him branded "Bad Horse" before I'd even taken him out of his stall.
It's interesting how we often blame the horse and call them "bad" for doing things that make perfect sense ... to a horse.
Today was a prime example. You'll notice that Grimm's nose in the picture is cut off. That's because he wouldn't stand still for the picture I was trying to take of the Bad Horse brand of make-up that he'd put on for tomorrow's vet visit. The best I could get was him walking in circles while I juggled camera and lead rope.
It was exasperating, but I really couldn't blame him. I've been changing up the routine enough that he's been pretty good most days, but today his behavior seemed to be saying that he was as sick of stall rest as I was, and he just didn't want to stand still. He wanted to DO something. I wasn't going to fight him on that one. I gave up on the picture and just let him get moving, but that didn't seem to appease him, either.
For the next twenty minutes, Bad Horse gave me a real run for my money. He reared and wheeled around with front legs flying more than once. He threatened to kick at the arena rail. He tried to prance and when I told him "no", he struck the ground -- not AT me, but with very clear frustration about my rules. He glowered and did the Grimm version of an angry Bad Horse Spanish walk, striking with every step. He cut the far corner of the arena by the round pen -- almost every time we passed it -- shouldering not QUITE into my space, but tossing his head and stomping his forefoot with agitation when I made him bend and yield back to where he belonged. In the last couple minutes, he repeatedly slammed on the brakes and gazed off into the distance at nothing with his 'look of eagles', playing 'stallion on the hilltop' like I didn't even exist until I tugged like I meant it on the end of the lead.
Nothing he did was overtly threatening, and in between it all, he was his normal mannerly, gentlemanly self. But for the most part, throughout his exercise time today, he was certainly bad. Very bad. In fact, if he'd have dared to try any of that nonsense -- let alone ALL of it -- when he wasn't at the end of almost a half year of lay-up, he'd have been in a whole lot of very Bad Horse trouble. But today, I thought I understood.
I was wrong. I didn't find out the real reason for all of his "bad" behavior until we were done. Here it is:
I didn't take this picture. My friend Tracy took it from her car on her way to the barn just as I was finishing up with Grimm. It's a black bear who'd been hanging out in the neighbor's paddock -- at the house just across the street from the round pen -- until he took off across their driveway and headed up the hill through the pasture right across the street from the arena.
All this happened, mind, while I was blithely walking my "bad" horse around the arena just a couple dozen yards away.
So. What was Grimm's lesson today? Well, actually it was a reiteration of something Chris McKechnie said to me during a clinic years ago. It's a lesson I've always remembered but really internalized at a new level today.
My mare had done something infuriating during a lesson, and I was sulking at her, so Chris set me straight. I don't remember exactly what Bri had done, and it doesn't matter. What Chris said about it is the important thing.
"If the horse was in her paddock," he asked, "or out in the wild and she did that, would it have been considered 'bad'?"
"No," I answered impudently. "Because I wasn't trying to ride her."
Chris replied, "Exactly. It's the human that makes the behavior 'bad'. The horse is just being a horse."
Nothing Grimm did today was bad either. He was simply being a horse. He reacted exactly as a good herd leader should to a very real and present danger. There was a bear practically in our driveway, and if Tracy hadn't been there to take that picture, I never would have seen it. But what if I had lost my temper with Grimm over how he was acting? What if I had taken his behavior at face value and made it my mission to teach that BAD HORSE a lesson? What if I never found out about that bear?
The thing is, horses don't decide to be bad simply for the sake of being bad; they just aren't wired that way. To understand a horse's 'bad' behavior, instead of blaming the horse, you as the human have to look for the metaphorical bear on the other side of the fence, because there really are no bad horses ... there are only horses that are reacting to the bear you didn't see.