Marlee came home on May Day. She had been gone for 5 years, helping “raise” a preteen girl who did beautifully with her but whose family circumstances sadly have changed, so it was our decision to buy Marlee back. My daughter Lea had the best ride of her life on her this morning; this mare has such a remarkable work ethic, is “fine-tuned” so perfectly with a sensitivity to cues–Lea said: “Mom, it’s going to make me such a better rider because I know she pays attention to everything I do with my body–whether my heels are down, whether I’m sitting up straight or not.” Marlee is, to put it simply, trained to train her riders.
Marlee M&B came to us as a six month old “runty orphan” baby by the lovely stallion Sterling Silver, but she was suddenly weaned at three days when her mama Melissa died of sepsis. She never really weaned from her bottle/bucket feeding humans Stefan and Andrea Bundshuh at M&B Farm in Canada. From them she knew people’s behavior, learned their nonverbal language, and understood human subtleties that most horses never learn. This made her quite a challenge as a youngster as it also meant there was no natural reserve nor natural respect for people. She had no boundaries taught by a mother, so we tried to teach her the proper social cues.
When turned out with the herd as a youngster, she was completely clueless–she’d approach the dominant alpha mare incorrectly, without proper submission, get herself bitten and kicked and was the bottom of the social heap for years, a lonesome little filly with few friends and very few social skills. She had never learned submission with people either, and had to have many remedial lessons on her training path. Once she was a mature working mare, her relationship with people markedly improved as there was structure to her work and predictability for her, and after having her own foals, she picked up cues and signals that helped her keep her foal safe, though she has always been one of our most relaxed “do whatever you need to do” mothers when we handle her foals as she simply never learned that she needed to be concerned.
Over the years, as the herd has changed, Marlee became the alpha mare, largely by default and seniority, so I don’t believe she really trusted her position as “real”. She tended to bully, and react too quickly out of her own insecurity about her inherited position. She was very skilled with her ears but she was also a master at the tail “whip” and the tensed upper lip–no teeth, just a slight wrinkling of the lip. The herd scattered when they saw her face change. The irony of it all is that when she was “on top” of the herd hierarchy, she was more lonely than when she was at the bottom. And I think a whole lot less happy as she had few grooming partners any more.
The day she started formal under saddle training was when the light bulb went off in her head–this was a job she could do! This was constant communication and interaction with a human being, which she craved! This was what she was meant for! And she thrived under saddle, advancing quickly in her skills, almost too fast, as she wanted so much to please her trainer.
She has had a still unequaled record among North American Haflingers. She was not only regional champion in her beginner novice division of eventing as a pregnant 5 year old, but also received USDF Horse of the Year awards in First and Second Level dressage that year as the highest scoring Haflinger.
She’s had a career of mothering along with intermittent riding work ever since, with 5 foals –Winterstraum, Marquisse, Myst, Wintermond, and Nordstrom—each from different stallions, and each very different from one another.
And now she is back to train another rider, and be part of a Haflinger herd again. I’m curious how she will cope once I turn her out with two mares she previously dominated, but who now have their own little coalition of bonding she must break through. I think they are curious too, eyeing her across the paddock fence. When we took her away from them to be ridden, she cried as if we had separated her from her best forever friends. “Herd bound” now that she is back among a group of golden horses like herself.
Welcome back, Miss Marlee. We’ve missed your sweet face and the smiles you bring.