In our new place east of Alamosa, we’ve inherited a herd of seven: two bays, three paints and two red mules. Well, not really inherited. We’re honoring a previous agreement our sellers made with a man from La Jara who boards his herd in our sixteen acre field until the grass is gone or the water tank freezes. It hasn’t been cold enough yet to freeze the tank, but the grass is very thin, and some of the herd are starting to look it. When they see me come to bring Esperanza in for the night and give her hay, they stand at the fence, nickering low in their throats. I can hear their request quite clearly, and I’m tempted, but I’m also reluctant to start throwing them hay too. They’re not mine, and the man will be coming for them next week.
The two black and white paints look the worst. Narrow-chested, long-legged and long-hooved, they are ribby and gaunt along their backbones and haunches. Maybe they’re older horses and their teeth are worn down. The mane on one of them is dreadlocked with an old braid that was never combed out, now riddled with stems, stickers and seeds. They’re sweet and docile to be around, or maybe they’re just beaten down. Until Esperanza arrived, they occupied the lowest rung of the pecking order.
Next up from the bottom are the two red mules, a John and a Molly, meaning one is male and the other female, although neither will ever be fertile as is true of most mules. They’re round bellied and healthy, easy keepers, and they both love their long ears to be scratched. They’re very gentle around us, but woe be to any intruder in the field. Yesterday I saw them chase two dogs out of the field that were drinking water from the spill puddles around the horse tank. They worked as a team, herding the dogs at a gallop until both dogs scrambled under the barbed wire, tails tucked, running for home.
When I first set Esperanza loose in the field—her head held high and tail straight up, pronging in a proud extended trot—she ran straight into a rude awakening. The mules took one look at her and pinned their ears back. Teeth bared, they harried her most of the day, chasing her all over the field with all but one paint the in hot pursuit. I watched and worried. Should I intervene? Save her from getting hurt? Keep her locked in her corral? But then I noticed that she learned, albeit reluctantly, to keep her distance from the herd, as if there were an invisible perimeter which she dared not penetrate lest the two enforcers push her back outside. A tough lesson for my alpha mare—and not without suffering a few scrapes and bite marks—to realize she’s not automatically queen of the herd, but instead an outcast, lower even than the two gaunt paints. Maybe, out on the periphery, she can learn to trade some of her high-headed exuberance for some caution and humility.
Then comes the big white paint, probably an Appaloosa mix by the look of his eyes and roan blotches and spots. A VERY easy keeper, this gentleman is actually fat. When he stands near the two gaunt paints, I can definitely see the advantages of being higher up on the pecking order: first dibs at food. I haven’t made friends with this horse that much. He lets me approach him, but he’s not very personable, and there’s something dull around him, uninspiring because he is un-aspiring. I’d like to see him enjoy himself for once in the field, but mostly he’s all about eating and preserving his place in the order. And being mean to Esperanza.
Highest on the pecking order are the two bays. They’re both stout, long-backed quarter horses with small chiseled heads and huge rumps, indistinguishable except that the mare has a faint crescent moon on her forehead and a couple white socks. At first I thought the bay gelding was in charge. No other horse dares to enter his space without his consent. He doesn’t need to harry or chase anyone like the mules and the white paint do; all he does is flick an ear back and narrow his eyes, and every horse instantly back peddles to give him space. Except that yesterday, after we had unloaded and stacked the second half of our hay bales for the winter and Henry had raked up the loose hay and thrown it over the fence, I noticed the bay gelding yielding to the bay mare, granting her first dibs at a small pile of hay. She didn’t do anything but move to the hay pile—no ear flick or lowered head or withering look. Nothing at all, and still he yielded. She must be the herd’s leader.
I marvel at the power she wields without any threat or use of force. Power simply through her presence and clear intention. I wonder if she was ever the new kid on the block, eager but inexperienced. Hers is the kind of status Esperanza would like to enjoy, but hasn’t yet earned. Hers is the kind of status I wouldn’t mind having myself.