07/05/2012 12:03 pm ET | Updated Sep 04, 2012

Taming Mr. Ed


The stranger arrives

He was not what I expected.

Eyes wide with fright blinked as sunlight streamed through the open door of the horse trailer. The little palomino gelding pushed into the corner of his box stall and would have willed himself through the steel wall if he were able. Legs and body trembled, and his snorting was more like crying than a warning.

"Go ahead. Lead him out," the hauler said as he offered the lead line.

I refused the gesture. "It is your trailer. I prefer that you lead him out," I said. What I was thinking was that it was foolhardy to walk into a cramped space with an obviously-terrified animal that did not know me.

Yes, this was not what I had expected.

Summer was intended to be a break from a grueling writing and travel schedule. A time to reflect, regroup and do nothing but put one foot in front of the other. There has never been a better balm for my soul than a horse, and my dreams for my hiatus included finding a steady trail mount, plugging destinations into the GPS, and riding through the badlands of Medora at Buffalo Gap. We would sleep together under star-filled big skies and meander through sagebrush-scented canyons where the wind is the only sound. All that was required of my horse was to walk slowly and with surefooted confidence, one foot in front of the other. I had two show horses and I wanted something that would not be judged. Something simple, pure, and uncomplicated.

I had obviously made a mistake, buying a horse unseen and relying on videos -- taken in by a palomino's beauty instead of common sense. I had ignored the warning signs on the videos, the clever editing and the harsh "Walker" bit in the mouth. The seller was vague. The horse "came from Tennessee," was all I knew. But intuition told me to go ahead. There was something in the eyes of this Tennessee Walker horse that was compelling.

A horse needs a name that suits him. His home would be at Spirit Horse Center, a boarding facility that emphasizes mind, body and spiritual connection between horse and rider. I am not much for New Age thinking, but I like the people there, and my other two horses thrive under their care when I am gone, which is often. The palomino came with the name "Rawhide," which certainly did not suit him. We all agreed it was an awful name and many suggestions were offered -- lofty names like "Cloud Walker" and "Rainbow" and "Moon Spirit."

I am someone who does not like pressure to be smart, accomplished, or social. I freeze. One day, the palomino hung his head out of his stall to stare at me, and something in him relaxed. I sensed that this horse did not need pressure either. He did not need a name that conjured up requirements and expectations. He looked like a ringer for Mr. Ed of 1950s and 1960s television fame.

Mr. Ed. "Eddie?" An ear twitched at me. "Eddie" it would be.



For those who weren't around for those golden days of family television, Mr. Ed was a talking horse. But no one could hear him talk except his befuddled, architect owner, Wilbur Post. The premise revolved around pratfalls and pitfalls as Wilbur tried to conceal the fact that his horse spoke to him. Mr. Ed would sometimes talk to children, only because no one would believe a child who said a horse could talk.

The "real" Mr. Ed opening theme

In the days that followed, I tried to get to know Eddie, realizing I was in far over my head and would probably be unable to keep him. I did not have the time or energy to spend gaining the trust of an abused animal. I, like Eddie, wanted to run away from responsibility. This was not my plan for a peaceful summer. The first time I placed a foot in the stirrup, Eddie went into flight mode. He did not have a mean bone in his body -- would not bite, kick or buck -- but he did want to run away. I found myself also wanting to run away from Eddie. A horse's only responsibility to us humans is to keep steady in direction and speed. This horse was no "steady Eddie."

If I tried to touch his ear, he would have a violent reaction of pulling back, eyes wide. I understood that fear completely, and insight and remembrance brought us closer in a tiny increment. Severe boxing of my ears as a child has left me forever with ringing and dizziness. I adapted; Eddie did not.

"Stay away from my ears." I "heard" him as clearly as the constant bells ringing in my own ears.

Years ago, I had worked with a Parelli Natural Horsemanship trainer. The technique, among many things, teaches approach, retreat and reward in the language that horses use with each other. Over many, many hours I worked on getting closer to Eddie's ears, using this technique. Gradually, he would allow my fingers to brush up against them. It was a small victory, but a great leap of trust.


Eddie blossoming today with the help of Parelli instructor Nita Jo Rush

I sought the advice of my former teacher, and when she met Eddie, her first words were, "He is not tame."

"What do you mean by not tame?" I asked.

She explained that Eddie was not attuned to humans. "This horse has no fear of the natural world, but he is terrified of people."

That did it. There was no way I could keep him. Could she place him with a professional for me? I would give him away, take my losses, realizing Eddie needed a good home and that selling him to just anyone could mean more suffering for him. We agreed on that plan, and in the interim I would continue working with him using natural horsemanship techniques.

To say Eddie was skittish or spooky does not begin to describe his constant sate of heightened anxiety. Everyone was urged to move quietly around him with no sudden movement. Tying him was out of the question because of his claustrophobia, and the best way to handle him was on a lead rope, using a soft, giving hand. Let him "drift" if he got nervous.

Spirit Horse Center is also the home of the Mounted Eagles Riding Program, where kids and adults with special needs experience therapeutic work with horses. It was a Mounted Eagles' day at the barn and Eddie was standing in the aisle. A little girl from the program ran up to him, seemingly out of nowhere. We all froze for a split second, worried that Eddie would bolt. Instead, something almost miraculous happened, and Eddie became as soft in body as a stuffed toy, lowering his head in a gesture of what could only be described as humble submission to the helpless child under his feet.

"He loves me," she squealed.

That did it. My heart wrapped around Eddie as surely as he wrapped his protective neck around the child.

The map of my summer has changed. Eddie and I are in uncharted territory with only the GPS of our mutual trust to guide us. The road may not lead us to the western skies, or perhaps it will. I simply do not know. What I do know is that there will be waypoints along the way that will be memorable, happy, sad and scary for both of us.

I'm a bit like Wilbur the architect. Writers hope our words offer a firm foundation that stands the test of time. Does Eddie think about me? I don't know. I do know that if I listen beyond the ringing in my ears that reminds me of past frights and current feelings of inadequacy, I can hear him. There is no doubt that he hears children and they hear him through his humble submission to their gentle spirits.

For more by Georgianne Nienaber, click here.

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