When I named Djinn, I had no idea how completely she would embody her name. I like to name my horses so that they can be represented by one simple symbol, a charm I can hold in my hand. For Djinn, that symbol is a little brass lamp, the same as you would see in a movie about a genie. When I met her, I knew she felt magical and I knew there was something in her that was a little dark. Not dangerous, not evil, but bound up. The name came to me: Djinn, and I knew it was her name. But it was only an intuition.
I trained Djinn in protective contact longer than any other horse I’ve had. I spent four months teaching her skills and refining her understanding, but the first time I entered the pen with her all her thresholds changed and she felt largely untutored. She had two very established behaviors when she initially came to the farm: bite when confused or frustrated, and rush forward with physical force when excited. Those were the behaviors she was most likely to choose and would pop out throughout her training. She remembered the new lessons I had taught her and was able to do most of them, but in the pen with her, I was able to feel how very superficial those lessons really were. Such a thin coat of varnish over the whole of her rough nature.
I would train her intensively for two or three months and then I would give her a few months off. I had to be really vigilant in order to keep safe when I worked with her. Leading her felt like having a lurching train on a string. I often felt a fizzing in the pit of my stomach while I worked with her, warning me to stay mindful. She didn’t mean any harm, really, she just had so much trouble controlling her emotions. She had been captured as yearling and lived in the mustang holding pens for two years before I adopted her. So her exposure to man-made environments was very limited. She had inhabited one large, flat pen with a huge herd of same-sex, same-age horses and they had stood around and ate for a few years straight. Her emotional flexibility was incredibly low and her capacity to absorb any motivational conflict was non-existent. She had not learned to handle complexity, fear, or excitement and had been only in peripheral relationship to humans. But, worse than all of these details was the feeling that she was absent emotionally. She would perform behaviors but she always felt flat and only partially available. After three years, I accepted her completely for who she was and stopped waiting for her to change. I was ok if she only wanted to be a pasture pet. I considered changing her name to something softer, Black Bear, powerful and connected to the earth.
But when I fed her, and spoke to her, I knew she was still Djinn. Every few months I would take her out and work her for a few weeks, and assess where she was. People even asked me if I still had her.
This spring, just shy of our fourth year together, something shifted. I brought her out to work and let her free to graze as I usually do, to allow her to get a little grass in her belly, a good buffer for the grain we use in training. But instead of grazing, she would take a bite or two, pull her head up and walk over to me, waiting quietly with her head near my chest. Not biting, not mugging, a learned quiet that she was offering as a bid to begin our training session. How surprising. How gentle. Every time I took her out she was the same. Calm. Engaged. Thoughtful. Each time I would marvel at how amazing she was that day and think to myself, “Well, this was unreal but I’m sure she’ll be back to herself tomorrow.”
Except, she only got better. More open. More present. More thoughtful in her responses. Safe. Relaxed. By the seventh or twelfth session of the same horse meeting me, I started to believe in this new version of Djinn. She had been a horse I would only take out when my working student, Erin, was around just in case something happened and I got hurt. One day, I realized she was the first horse I was thinking of in the morning and the first horse I got out, even when no one else was home on the farm.
Everything culminated with a training session that left me speechless. I took her out to the arena to work on her education in the cavesson, playing at the mounting block and general “arena games” in a relaxed preparation for riding. Previous to this she had been very safe, accurate in her responses, but she lacked a bit of “sparkle”. She offered me trot in that session and was deeply emotionally engaged, joyful and so present that I could barely keep up mentally with this being who had so much to offer. She trotted off in-hand in the cavesson, balancing between the reins with energy bubbling up from her feet. I felt a tidal wave of emotion in my chest. It was exactly as if you had lived with a roommate for years who was very quiet and non-communicative, flat, and came home to find them at the table with a fabulous dinner set out for you, candles lit, smiling and full of fascinating conversation. Djinn was unbound, larger than life, granting wishes faster than I could gather them in my hands.
I could speculate endlessly about reinforcement histories, repetition, maturity and all the myriad factors that came together for Djinn to be who she suddenly is today. The truth is all of my horses have become pretty spectacular partners at the four year mark, but none of them have made such a sudden and vast leap. Which, when you think about it, is exactly like Djinn all along, to leap wholeheartedly into our conversation, the same way she used to leap away.