Story submitted by GEVA
“All life, regardless of its form, classification or reputation, will respond to genuine interest, respect, appreciation, admiration, affection, gentleness, courtesy, good manners.”
—J. Allen Boone, Kinship with all Life
I don’t know what it was that first drew me to Harry. When I started volunteering at GEVA, an Equine Retirement and Rehabilitation Foundation and Sanctuary, he wasn’t a favorite among the volunteers, not only because he was standoffish with people in general, but because when they tried to groom him, he tried to bite them—often with great success. And the 4 or 5 other horses with whom Harry shared a paddock weren’t particularly fond of him either; he was at the absolute bottom of the herd’s pecking order. But I was quite taken with him—perhaps simply because no one else was.
So whenever I was at the farm, I would try to make a little time to go into Harry’s paddock to say hello to him, give him a carrot, and let him lick my hands, which was something he initiated and often wanted to do. I didn’t even think of haltering or grooming him. But then one warm, spring day I saw that Harry, who grew a really thick winter coat, was seriously shedding and seriously needed to be groomed. So hoping against hope he would sense the love in my heart more than the desire not to be bitten in my mind, I entered the paddock and headed toward Harry, halter in one hand, shedding blade in the other.
I was a bit concerned that when Harry saw the shedding blade in my hand, he might take off running, but he didn’t. I was greatly encouraged. Once I had him haltered, I made a big deal of showing him the shedding blade and explaining to him what I was planning to do, and when he stood quietly listening to me with only a mild, if puzzled, expression on his face, I was thrilled. When he didn’t object to my running the shedding blade over his neck and shoulders—tentatively at first, then more vigorously—I was over the moon.
And then, BAM!
As soon as I started grooming behind his withers, Harry swung that big head of his head around with the speed and agility of a cat. I managed—just—to avoid the bite, but Harry had definitely lived up to his reputation. And I felt like living proof that fools do indeed rush in where angels fear to tread.
While I was standing there wondering whether I should persist and risk another bite or quit while I was ahead, I couldn’t help but notice Harry was standing quietly beside me as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. He hadn’t once tried to pull away, even when he’d tried to bite me, and his neck was relaxed, his head low, his eyes quiet. He didn’t seem at all upset or alarmed or annoyed. So I decided to persist.
After taking a little walk to clear our heads (well, OK, my head), we began again. I ran the shedding blade along Harry’s neck and shoulders as before, and as before, he had no objection whatsoever. I moved to his back, and although I groomed ever so gently, and although he waited longer than the first time, Harry once again swung his head around to bite me.
It was then I recalled reading somewhere (would that I had recalled it sooner), that some Thoroughbreds are more thin-skinned than other breeds, or for that matter, other Thoroughbreds—and like most of the horses at GEVA, Harry was a Thoroughbred. True, none of GEVA’s other Thoroughbreds had ever tried to bite anyone while being groomed, but maybe that was not because they had better manners, but simply because they had tougher hides.
So I lightened my touch with the shedding blade even more. And instead of focusing just on Harry’s back, which seemed to be the only area where he was so hypersensitive, I skipped around from his back to other areas of his body—his rump, his belly, his chest, his neck and shoulders, then back to his back again. I would be lying if I said this approach was an instant and wild success. It wasn’t. But it was a start, and it wasn’t long before Harry tried to bite me less often and with less conviction, until by the end of the summer, we’d reached the point where he sometimes didn’t try to bite me at all.
Then one day, one glorious day I will never forget, after who knows how many groomings and how many carrots and how many hand-lickings, Harry saw me coming across the paddock toward him, and gave a soft nicker of welcome.