When I met a deeply traumatised horse as a child I never imagined the impact she’d have on my life. Ultimately Molly was a lifelong friend and proved to be the most influential teacher. When I had to prepare to say goodbye to my soulmate too soon I realised I needed to share our story, and how she shaped who I am.
As a horse mad 13 year old there weren’t many horses I thought I couldn’t ride. When a family friend asked me to hack out a tricky pony while she rode her horse I didn’t bat an eyelid. I arrived and met Molly, a little black appaloosa mare. She was pacing wildly in the stable, run up and sweaty with a distant, wide eyed stare. It took two people to hold her while I was flung aboard and off we went, her feet barely touching the floor the entire time. After a while we were asked if we wanted to take Molly to our own yard for training as her owner struggled to handle her. Very conventional then in our methods I remember thinking how a bit of lunging and regular work would set her right. How wrong I was.
On the day we collected her she had come over the stable door, cut open her face and took four hours to load. Once home the true extent of Molly’s trauma became apparent. In the field she would constantly stare into the distance as if waiting for something terrible. To handle she was dangerous, knocking people over in blind panic, rearing constantly and unable to stand still for even a moment. Once I had tried to put her rug on in the field and had come upon so much difficulty that it reduced me to tears. But despite her troubles I became extremely attached to the beautiful black mare, so when we were told she was for sale we bought her.
Watching her canter across the fields one sunny afternoon I remember being astounded at how magnificent and beautiful she was, and was completely in awe that such a horse could be ‘mine’. However, Molly continued to be terrified and almost impossible to handle. Very quickly I had ran out of ideas and confidence, and wondered whether it was wise to have ever got involved. At my wits end I contemplated my options. Selling her was out of the question as it would inevitably see her passed from dealer to dealer, a pattern she had already lived many times over. I considered having her put to sleep but couldn’t justify going through with it. So Molly was resigned to the fields while my mum handled her, and I became less and less involved.
A year or so later we were introduced to a system of natural horsemanship by a lady who discovered it after having difficulties herself. She had heard about Molly and believed it was just the thing to sort her out. The next time she was at the yard we tried some together, and for the first time since I had got Molly I felt that I could handle her safely. ‘This is the answer’ I thought, and with that we enrolled into the system. Diligently we worked through the groundwork steps, submitted assignments and spent thousands of pounds hosting annual clinics. We enjoyed a lot of success as a result and achieved things I would have never thought possible when I met her. I started volunteering for a falconry centre and learnt to fly birds of prey from Molly whilst riding. We often took her to falconry and horsemanship demonstrations across the county, camping overnight and performing in the day. One of my proudest moments during this time was when Molly was chosen to use at a wedding. She was adorned with flowers and looked magnificent as she plodded down the castle driveway carrying the bride, and was perfect the entire day.
In the beginning the natural horsemanship system seemed to hold all the answers, but after years of studying it more and more questions came up. We often found ourselves exerting more force than we felt comfortable with and many of the lessons seemed extremely stressful, both for the horse and trainer. During our third and last clinic I was instructed to ride Molly around a barrel in an open field. We only had one rein and a rope halter as was the norm, and were working on canter circles which Molly found very difficult. Again and again Molly would bolt when asked for canter and set off across the field galloping towards the fence. When I tried to turn her using my one rein she would brace her neck against me, and on approaching the fence change direction so quick that I’d lose my balance. It was a wonder I stayed on at all. Off we went again, galloping flat out in the opposite direction. When I finally gained enough control to get her back to the barrel I’d be instructed to try the exercise again. Once more she’d brace and bolt and we’d set off on a terrifying repetition. There had been other questionable exercises and teachings in the system, but this one was the last I ever engaged in. It was meant to be kind and enjoyable, yet my horse and I were left traumatised and emotionally exhausted after every session. I left the system and Molly returned to the field. Once again I was without any tools or direction.
There had been talk for a long time amongst some horse professionals about natural horsemanship not being especially kind or ethical. Obviously when it was our only conceivable option we dismissed these claims valiantly in a classic case of cognitive dissonance. However with each concerning incident and unanswered question we gradually became more open to the idea that they could actually be right. After abandoning the system and feeling lost once more I slowly started to explore alternative options, and became involved with equine behaviourist Lindsy Murray. She worked with myself and Molly in an entirely new way. First she dealt with the severe anxiety that I’d developed in the years of struggling, and talked about Molly’s behavioural and emotional needs. I was taught very simple, positive exercises that allowed my horse and I to remain within our comfort zones. Gone was the need for emotionally charged battles and traumatic training sessions. What’s more, we both started to enjoy the sessions. It wasn’t a fight anymore, my mind was completely blown.
The peacefulness and calm of this new approach and enthusiasm it created in Molly was incredible. In all the years of working with her I’d never made the progress that we made in the first few weeks. I threw myself into studying equine behaviour and positive reinforcement training, going on to complete the equine behaviour qualification at The Natural Animal Centre. The more I learnt the more things started to make sense; I understood her behaviour and how I could start to help her. Uncomfortably I also learnt the truth behind the strategies I had used in the past (something I explain more here), and wept at the unconscious cruelty I had committed. In time I started a bachelor’s degree in Animal Behaviour, driven by the desire to learn as much as possible about this fascinating field that had helped my horse.
Molly and the rest of her herd moved to a beautiful expanse of hillside in the peak district to live a more natural life. This would eventually become The Pott Shrigley Project and give rise to The Positive Herd Project, which promises to help many more horses and people in its ongoing work. Over the years Molly proved to be my greatest teacher and most honest critic. If something was not right she would let me know, and I learnt to listen to her. Developing this two way communication allowed me to refine the way I interacted with horses, ensuring it was always in their best interest. Working in this mutually beneficial way created a deep and trusting relationship between me and Molly. While at Pott Shrigley we would often go for rides out alone to the top of the hill. I’d attach reins to my head collar and slip on bareback, then Molly would plod up the hill to the gate without any prompts. When out we would alternate periods of exploring with grazing and resting, both enjoying it in equal measure. These peaceful rides were a far cry from the traumatic and stressful experiences we endured years earlier, and a very precious memory.
Molly continued to live happily with her friends as The Positive Herd Project was developed, a project she’d had a major role in creating. She became known as Molly the legend as a testament to her overall importance. One day in 2017 on a routine check of the horses I noticed that Molly’s eye had become swollen and glassy. She had uveitis, and despite the best efforts to save the eye it had to be removed. For a horse so scared and troubled Molly adjusted to life with one eye remarkably well. Once healed she continued enjoying retirement as her calm, relaxed and happy self.
Just over a year later, in October 2018 I noticed to my horror that her remaining eye had gone the same way. For four weeks we battled to save her eye, administering multiple eye drops daily. Even at this dark time Molly still had a lesson for us. Initially she found the eye drops very stressful which made us doubt whether we could treat her at all, but once I started training it positively she responded immediately. In the middle of the night we shared precious moments training her to have her sore eye touched and examined. Tragically the eye showed little improvement for all our efforts and it became apparent that she wasn’t going to get better. She’d done so well adapting to losing one eye but I was not going to make her live in complete darkness. She had already endured too much stress for one life. It came time to make the most difficult decision, and on 12 November 2018 I said a heartbreaking goodbye to my soulmate.
Molly really was life changing, not the horse I would have chosen but definitely the one I needed. She shaped every aspect of who I had become during my journey with her. Consequently I’d learnt an entirely new way of interacting with animals, had embarked on a career and built my life around helping other horses and people. She’s taught me to be a more compassionate, caring and empathetic individual. It was a heart breaking goodbye much too soon and I am not sure who I’ll be without her. We owe it to her to continue striving forward with this mission to help others. Just like we did for Molly and she did for me.
Molly the legend is one of the most precious and incredible horses I’ve had the privilege of knowing. I will never forget her; my beautiful, magnificent Molly Moon.