This is my Valentine. It is actually her name now, because when she came to us we looked at her papers and discovered her birthday is on Valentine’s Day!
Here is our love story:
In 2007 she was donated to ICOH (In the Company of Horses) and she lived on 29 acres with a herd down in South Jersey. She had a hard time really fitting into the herd there, even after the year she was turned out. We cared for her needs, but no one rode her, she didn’t have her own person.
Despite this lack of connection in her new home, when we picked her up from the people who donated her, we could see clearly, this was a very connected horse. We drove the truck and trailer right into the pasture with her herd and before she loaded into the trailer, every horse in her field came up to her and they touched noses, then she loaded up and off we went.
Back then, my horsemanship mentor was living in MD and I traveled there twice each month for lessons. I live in Central, NJ, so I drove right past the farm in South Jersey, both to and from my lessons.
One day in early June, 2008 I stopped by on my way home for a visit, When I pulled in the driveway with my truck and trailer, Valentine was running the fence line and yelling! This was highly unusual for her. Normally when we visit, all the horses come running to see who is in the trailer, the horses are all like cousins, we go to visit and they run around all night! But this day, it was only Valentine.
I went over to see what she needed and she calmed right down but clearly wanted something, so I picked up a halter and lead rope and put them on and invited her out. She stood looking at me with all of her attention.
I had been working, in my horsemanship lessons, on sending my clear mental pictures from me to my horses without body language, so I thought to Valentine, “Lets go somewhere”, well, with that, she leapt in the air and all I saw was sky, all around her!
I knew in that moment, A.) I needed to be more clear or else, we were going into the clouds! and B.) This girl was coming home with me! She jumped in my trailer and that was the beginning of me, learning from my lead mare about true leadership through the horses!When a new horse arrives at the farm and is mine, I usually take a few days to incorporate her into the herd. When Valentine arrived, I turned her out immediately and she fit right in. Some of my herd knew Valentine because of their “cousin” activity down in South Jersey. But this was clearly different, Valentine showed something to me that I had not seen before.
Valentine instantly and with clarity walked confidently through my herd and they all began to follow her. In fact my lovely and dominant mare Jessie also followed. It was quiet, friendly and completely respectful.
As time went on, the whole herd became calm, like their new and, maybe first ever, true lead mare joined them. In the past, the dominant mare ran the herd and everyone was on edge. Very quickly, Jessie’s need to display dominance faded and now is indistinguishable. The passive horse’s nature was allowed to cultivate a closeness in the herd. The whole herd, now has some say in what happens. Here are some examples of how this has evolved:
- When Valentine came, she befriended my gelding who had a leadership role in my herd, not because he was a horse with real lead qualities, but because he was the only boy in the sea of girls. I also believe Valentine honored him for his age, wisdom and experience. There are many differences between the “leadership” my gelding displayed and the “leadership” Valentine demonstrates.
- Valentine really stepped into her own leadership role when my gelding died. It is worth noting here that when Sorrel passed, he was 28 years old; he died in the night in the field, surrounded by his mares. For 7 mornings in a row, when I came out at dawn, all seven mares were sleeping in a circle where he passed. I believe this ritual was indeed an honoring of who he was for them and this series of events is what had me buy my Sterling, an Andalusian colt. I wanted to learn who the stallion really is in the herd!
- The smallest pony, mya, who is only 30 inches tall, is very smart. When Sorrel passed, she instantly moved her allegiance to Valentine, also recognizing her fair and friendly leadership style even though, she was the newest member of the herd. Mya brings her ideas to the herd by leading the way to the greenest pastures, she is brave, traversing the ditches and water first to head to wherever she can find grass and she is self sufficient enough to stay away from the herd when they head back to the shelter, however, she knows where to find safety, comfort and leadership in the herd, right next to her herd leader, Valentine. It is not every horse that is allowed to eat with the herd leader, but Mya has done the work to be in that category.
Mya has also been emboldened by her friendship with Valentine to assert herself with Hearty, our large pony. While many ponies are tough, Mya is not a dominant horse by nature, but every horse has ideas and some measure of willingness to assert those ideas in some situations. I have witnessed some of these ideas come from the herd leader and the pony was willing to align. Valentine always allows Mya to eat, drink and stand right with her. No other horse in the herd enjoys that status.
- Jess has also turned into a horse who is there for the herd leader to see what is needed and to provide that. I watched Jessie help Valentine cross the creek. It took two days. On our track system where the horses live, the best grass and grazing is across the creek. When Valentine arrived, she worried about water crossing. I watched as the herd left for greener pastures and Jessie waited. I was so impressed because Jessie never seemed to care about any of the other horses it was all about dominance and hierarchy, until now.
Jess walked into and across the creek and turned back to look for Valentine who clearly wanted to go, just couldn’t! Jess would walk back through the water toward Valentine and then back across the water and look back again. I watched her all day. The whole herd was out of sight except Valentine on one side of the creek and Jessie on the other, all day, all night and most of the next day until Valentine finally did it! Together they galloped to the greener pasture. This new relationship began the change in Jessie 9 years ago. She is still a naturally dominant mare who is the enforcer and keeps order in the herd, but is so much more centered, calm, loving and friendly to people and horses. She has matured in her clarity and uses her dominance judiciously, not just for the sake of dominance.
- My Angie (Ms. Patches of Winter – May she rest in peace) was always in love with Sorrel, our gelding, so when Valentine came and wanted to spend time with him, she was unhappy about it, pinning her ears and doing a lot of posturing and threatening, but not backing it up with any kind of physical touching. After Sorrel passed, Patches isolated herself from the herd and became an outsider, always on the fringes, not incorporating herself with the others. She mourned for many months, honestly, it was heartbreaking. We did body work and energy work to help her and it did, I’m sure. One day, Valentine cornered her and kicked her repeatedly, not causing any real damage but leaving many hoof prints on her body. I was furious with my lead mare for such violence and not to mention, I loved my Miss Patches. I separated Valentine from the herd as a punishment. The herd wanted to be with her, I would not allow it. Patches wanted to be with her, I would not allow it. This went on for two days. Finally, I allowed her to return to her herd and I was stunned at how Patches changed. She seemed to be the one apologizing, being incredibly attentive. Valentine just went on as she did before the incident, grazing and being clear about her projected path, ears always forward. It was over, Patches was now able to incorporate herself into this new herd, becoming buddies with Mya, Jacquie, Summer and Hearty. All in all, it seemed to have value and once again, I learned another lesson about leadership.
Patches was always good at seeing things far away. After this incident, the herd noticed when Angie was on high alert. They too noticed what she was looking at and seemed to agree that it was worth their high alert. When she was separate and grieving, they did not give her the full value, she clearly had.
My experience is that horses are mostly gentle with each other and if one horse kicks another, especially when they live in herds and know how to live in herds, they know how to deliver a message without mortally wounding one another. After all, leaders need a herd to lead and good leaders know, all of the herd members have value.
Summer is the tall redhead in the photo above. She came to me about a year before Valentine. Patches liked her right away and accepted her into her harem band. Summer is also very good at leading the herd to greener pastures or playing in the water, she is a water baby! Summer is a passive horse naturally, she wants to be together, is friendly and a connecter in the herd, she is confident standing with the herd leader and has no bones to pick with he dominant one. Most natural herds are made up of many, more horses who have passive tendencies. We have at least a few.
- Heart of Gold is a tall pony who is a friendly passive connector as well. She has strong opinions, but if a new horse comes, I give Heart to them. She has good boundaries, is happy most of the time, curious, brave and strong. She follows and has found a friend in everyone in the herd, even being the only horse in my herd who mutually grooms with Jessie. Heart did not always find peace in her herds. I believe it was the peace and clarity that Valentine created when she arrived that had Heart be able to find her place here too. Most of the horses come running when they are called, but Heart and Jessie most of all, they are big Yes’s! It is refreshing and pleasant.
One of the things I am proud of is how the lessons learned from my lead mare go with me and transfer to all other horses though me. I can ride this pony, Heart, and lead both my lead mare, Valentine and my dominant mare Jessie on the trail at a walk, trot and canter and they all defer to me, this pony can be confident that neither horse will hurt her. I have not seen a circumstance on the farm where she would willingly put herself in between Valentine and Jessie unless I am there. It is heartening!