A quiet evening in the barn, the air cool, the wind soft in the trees outside the door, I watch with delight as my two horses, Tara and her brother Fuersti, groom each other after dinner.


Fuersti has begun the ritual, as he most often does, approaching his sister and nibbling on her withers. She positions herself so she can nibble back. Eventually, they stand head to tail, nibbling each other’s hips, flanks.



My horses were born outside and have lived outside their whole lives, with free-choice hay, only coming into stalls to eat twice a day. But at the barn we moved to a few months ago, I don’t even bring them into stalls. I just invite them into the arena, lay down two tarps and place their feed dishes on those. It took a few weeks of close monitoring, but now they leave each other’s food alone, each sticking to her or his own space, only coming together after their meal.


While they have groomed each other for much, if not all, of their lives, the after-meal ritual is new. And I am both honored and delighted to witness it.


Make no mistake, while there is tenderness here, there are also teeth, and great concentration. While I have never before interrupted them, on this evening, I approach Fuersti to give him a sizeable glob of food he has dropped. This is a horse who loves his food, who will do just about anything for food. Yet, when I hold my hand out to share the leftovers, he does not even look. He is in another place, gently and intensely tending to his sister’s flank.



Some years ago, when Tara and Fuersti were very young, before they were “mine,” when they were living with their mothers on a small farm that I watched over for a couple of years, I went into the barn late one night to get hay to spread in the paddock and to check on everyone. The horses could freely walk in and out of one end of the barn. Tara’s mother, Kinsale, was there, napping. I greeted her, reached over the gate to rub her head, and then joined her on the other side, scratching her withers and back. Tara soon joined us, and then Willie, Fuersti’s mom.


So here we were, the four female inhabitants of the farm, in a circle, grooming each other. I was scratching and gently rubbing Kinsale, who was grooming Tara, who was grooming Willie. I explained to Willie that I didn’t really want her teeth on me, so she turned and groomed Tara as well.


After a few calm and beautiful minutes, Fuersti, suddenly realizing he was alone outside, came charging into the barn. He never walked in those days; he was always in rapid motion, something akin to a hurricane.


“What are we doing?” he seemed to say. “Oh, we’re grooming?” and then, not wanting to be left out, launched himself into the circle and begin biting—hard—on his mother, which resulted in him getting bitten back, the circle completely falling apart, and me quickly moving myself to the other side of the gate while they worked things out.


Ah, Fuersti.



Watching him now makes my heart sing. He is so tender, so kind. His sister has put up with so much nonsense from him over the years, it is a joy to see her cared for in this way.


The sun is setting, the arena is darkening. I open the gate, and they go out, begin munching hay against the backdrop of the pink sky. A few birds call out on their way home for the night. A coyote howls. My heart is full.



For a moment, I wonder how life would be if humans routinely shared their own after-meal ritual of tenderness.



I hope you will be moved to share your thoughts.

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