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A lesson in belonging from the newest member of the herd

A lesson in belonging from the newest member of the herd

We welcomed a new member into the herd in November 2017 : Millie, a 5 year old Connemara pony who looks a little like a unicorn without the horn. Her creamy-white forelock crinkles and shines about her eyes. The beginning with the herd was difficult for her. Clear ways of relating amongst the other horses were already in place. The dominant pair-bond Winston, 21,and Ruby, 16, had been together for 9 years and the third member of the herd Dawn, an elderly Shetland pony, preferred my company, or her own, having lost her own pair-bond some months earlier.

Millie had always lived with her half-sister. They were born two days apart at the same stud and had grown up together. I was told that they had only ever spent three weeks apart. I knew it would be hard for her to be separated from her mate, I also knew that if I didn’t buy Millie… someone else would. In the human world in which she lived an imposed separation was inevitable. Such is the power which we have over these creatures who, if left to their own devices, will form relationships for life.

So Millie arrived one cold November morning and from the first moment was terrified. She jumped out of the field in those early days more than once. In particular she was very worried by the other two horses. She was bewildered and unsure of the new ‘rules’ in this strange environment without the life-long friend that she had trusted. She quickly paired up with Dawn, my Shetland, who gave her reassurance and company in spite of her advanced years. This provided only temporary respite as sadly her new friend passed away from natural causes just three weeks later.

Millie, I knew, was now doubly bereaved and trusted nothing in her new environment. This included me and for months I struggled to connect with her. She was defensive, protective, sometimes even a little wild. I might be accused of anthropomorphism to say that she was also lonely, with the older horses keeping her at bay.

Seven months later I sat in the field soaking up the morning sunshine and observed the three contented horses walking together, nose-to-tail, down to the water trough. How distant those turbulent winter months seemed! Their tails swished and made shining ’S’s as they moved and the light reflected off the silky strands. Their gait rhythmical, harmonious. The older horses even allowed Millie to drink simultaneously to them, albeit from a very small corner of the trough. They stood with barely a finger separating them, heads low in relaxation, water dripping off their muzzles.

How easy they are now with each other, I thought. Now, between the three of them, things are still very clear. When Millie transgresses herd etiquette she is reprimanded – usually just with flattened ears or the sight of a round rump reversing towards her. However if she fails to respond to that a harsh nip usually follows. She bears marks on her flank to show for it. However she does not take it personally and simply moves away to find a different pile of hay to eat.

While learning to respect boundaries within the herd, Millie is also learning to ask for what she wants. Winston had ambled over to me to beg some scratches in the places he likes to be scratched. He politely presented the exact spots on his back, neck and belly which itched and then turned to offer the same on the other side. It is an old summer ritual of ours and I am always honoured to oblige. As we interacted, I saw Millie approach and watch us curiously from several feet away.

When I moved away from Winston he went back to his hay but Millie followed me. I could almost see her thinking ‘I wonder if she will do the same for me if I ask?’ Tentatively she offered me her withers. ‘There?’ I asked, scratching vigorously. ‘Or there?’ She let out a great sigh and yawned in relaxation.

Thus a new ritual was created and another level of bonding between she and I. A small, yet huge step, in the formation of this new relationship.

Reflecting on this delicate process of ‘belonging’ within the herd, I was reminded how long it takes to build up real trust between two creatures or for that matter two people. That it grows organically with the seasons. In our world we are expected to form successful relationships quickly without the prolonged settling in process which Millie had. When we are forming new ‘herds’, whether at work or at play, contrary to adopting the uncompromising directness of horses about what is and is not OK, we tend to be accommodating, polite and keen to please. And while the norms of our species require fair, tolerant and compassionate behaviour, there is much for us to learn from horses about the importance of clearly setting and respecting boundaries. We fear that doing so will alienate us, yet on the contrary clear boundaries enable us to build trust because we all know where we stand. So long as nothing is taken personally.

But perhaps an even more important lesson for me from Millie is how important it is, when we are seeking to belong, to ask for what we need, as she had done with me that first time. When we ask for what we need, we make ourselves vulnerable, we risk a refusal, and this is something we fear almost as much as alienation. So we tend to struggle on coping as best we can. But until we can find the courage to reach out to those around us and ask for what we need, we never can fully connect with them. This is important for both parties for in the exchange of help we forge a connection which goes beyond the polite. By asking, we create an opportunity for someone else to give, and it is in this exchange where trust is truly born.

_Pam Billinge is a coach, therapist, facilitator and author. You can read about her work on and

Pam is author of The Spell of the Horse, Stories of Healing and Personal Transformation, which is published by Blackbird Books.

Her book is available from all good bookstores on order or from Amazon and other on-line retailers. Reviews of The Spell of the Horse can be seen here._