I was walking my beautiful, sweet German shepherd dog recently, pondering our five years together. Mayzie (properly: Amazing Grace) is a petite girl who still has a lot of puppy in her: eager eyes, bouncy attitude, excitable (especially when it involves a stick or a ball).
When we joined up, Mayzie was 12 weeks old. I had the goal of working with her to become a search & rescue K9 team. We joined the Kent County (MI) SAR K9 unit in western Michigan and trained together weekly for more than two years. Finally, it became evident that it just wasn’t going to work out (see “Generally Write: Hard News,” July 2016). I was crushed, but over time I have realized that my goal required us both to be 100 percent able to do the job. Mayzie was good. Oh, she was very good—most of the time. But I reluctantly came to understand that she was not going to be a dog who would do reliably well. For example, sending us out at midnight in the rain on a missing toddler would have been unpromising. She wasn’t that good, and that’s how good a mission-ready team has to be.
Then, too, there’s this stunning grey mare, Marque. This horse came into my life after I was asked to get her fit; she’d been a pasture ornament for more than a year; her owner was dying of a nasty disease. The family needed to get her ready to sell. In more than 60 years of riding horses, I have been on quite a few outstanding horses, but this horse? This one captured my heart. We are a perfect fit, both in personality and physically. She’s opinionated, capable, strong.
I was riding her recently and pondering our nearly three years together. Since returning to the horse world in the 1990s after a hiatus to build a career and start a family, my chosen equestrian sport has been Eventing (the triathlon of the horse world). I campaigned on my now-retired ex-racehorse, Gentleman Jack (“Jake”) at the upper levels for a number of years. It is demanding and rigorous. The trouble is, Marque is decidedly not an eventer. She is a dressage horse: flowing, with breath-taking gaits and eye-catching cachet. She was raised in a sand arena. When we first met, there was a flare of interest in seeing if she’d like jumping (her sire was Mannhattan, a Grand Prix jumper). It wasn’t long before a tendon squawked, leading to lengthy rehab and the decision not to ask this of her, not at age 13. Besides, she’s nervous on grass, shying even at poop piles in the field; I hate to imagine trying to ask her to summon the courage to gallop around a cross-country course.
So, my animals aren’t a good fit for my interests. To me, the final answer has been hard and also easy: don’t make them do it. But so often we see animals being asked to do things that clearly they are not mentally, emotionally, or even physically suited to do. What’s tragically impressive is how many of them try, and even succeed to some extent, but only because they want to please their humans, who are asking them to be something they are not.
I ponder why we humans can’t seem to stop, re-evaluate, and admit when things aren’t a good match. I think it is because it’s so darned hard! Both times I have had to adapt to a different plan in the past couple of years, it was personally (very) heart-breaking. But when I look at my animals now, I see that they are happy doing what they are being asked to do. This eases my wistfulness for lost goals a little.
So here I am, with a dog who is not search and rescue material and a horse who doesn’t jump. What I want, in my work with my animals, is not what I am currently getting. Yes, it stings. But to me, the important lesson has been that, when it comes to our animals, some things really matter: It matters not to persist at pounding a square peg into a round hole. It matters to understand that, like humans, our dogs and horses and other animals are best served when asked to do things that match their individual talents and interests. It matters to be rise above our wishes—at least for now—hard as doing that can be.