My favorite horse of all time was an aging Quarter Horse named Buddy. Buddy wasn’t fast or smart or well mannered. And he certainly wasn’t good looking. His ears were too long, his hooves were too small, and he hadn’t had a shave in years. But I learned to like Buddy because he did something that no other horse has ever done for me: Buddy listened.
Buddy lived at a large local boarding barn. His owners kept him in a pasture with a half dozen other ancient horses; a kind of equine retirement village. The first time I approached the fence, a knot of the old geezers sauntered over like bored security guards to check me out.
I put my hands up: “Sorry, no autographs today.” Once they figured out I had nothing for them, they wandered off. Except for Buddy. Buddy stayed right were he was, his head and neck craned over the fence.
The kids in the barn warned me to stay away from Buddy. He’s obnoxious and a pain, they said. I soon discovered what they were talking about. When I got close enough to pet him, Buddy turned his face directly into mine and sniffed. Then he snorted. He rubbed his forehead on my jacket and about knocked me over. Buddy was obnoxious.
About a week later, the scene was repeated. The geriatric gang approached the fence, fussed a bit and left. Again, Buddy remained behind. I moved down the fence line to get away from this nuisance, but he paralleled my movement keeping his body between me and the other horses. He made sure that if any horse was going to get any attention, it was going to be him. But when I tried to pet him, he nudged me with his nose and nibbled on my jacket collar. You couldn’t get close to this horse without him mauling you.
I had enough of the pest and stayed away from the retirement pasture altogether. But every time we turned into the driveway at the boarding barn, there he was, waiting in same spot, straining his neck over the fence as if the six inches he gained was a good start on the two hundred feet that separated us. He pawed at the ground and neighed the entire time we were there.
I couldn’t stand it anymore. I strolled over to the fence, careful not to get too close. I explained to him that we could never be friends as long as he insisted on blowing snot on me and using his face as a weapon and mine as a target.
As I spoke, I noticed something about Buddy: as long as I kept taking, he kept still. So I kept talking, babbling about anything until I was nose to nose with him. He didn’t flinch. There was no snorting or nudging or nibbling. It as if he was hanging on every word I said and didn’t want to miss a thing. The second I was quiet, he started with his head thrusting. I had found a way to make Buddy behave.
It never failed. All I needed to do was talk to Buddy and he was perfectly well behaved. It didn’t matter what I talked about. I babbled about pro football, the Clintons, rush hour traffic in Chicago, the history of the pencil. As long I maintained a rhythm to my speech and didn’t turn my back to him, he listened.
Occasionally, I brought Buddy an apple. Like any horse he took these and would be lost in apple ecstasy for a moment. But as soon he finished, he raised his head and pricked up his big ears as if to say, “Okay, you may begin now.” Other times, I simply scratched his mane and neck as I spoke. He listened, eyes at half mast, lips relaxed almost to the point of drooling.
Sometimes we walked as I spoke. It wasn’t unusual for us to stroll the entire circumference of the pasture - Buddy on his side of the fence, me on mine. When I stopped and turned toward him to make a point, I would gesture with my hands and he nodded. That was the best part. Buddy didn’t just listen, he agreed.
Our favorite topic—actually my favorite topic—was the evolution of the human-equine relationship. “First, my kind ate your kind, Buddy. Then my kind fed your kind. Then my kind learned to ride your kind. And now,” I pointed to a horse trailer, “my kind gives your kind a ride.”
I haven’t seen Buddy in over 10 years. After we moved the girls’ horses from the boarding barn, I never went back. I wish I had. I would like to know what became of Buddy. Perhaps if we had more time, we could have discussed
the next great development in the human-
Buddy listened. But I wonder, if he could have learned to communicate, what would he say?