Monday, December 13, 2010


(continued from Dec. 11, 2010)

"This one's going to be trouble," I said as our farrier crouched under the electric fence. I remember the words as certainly as anyone does from the charged, slow-motion moments that precede a tragic accident. I had my mare on a halter and lead in a pasture adjacent to where Trevor had just trimmed our other two horses' hooves. I conveyed the message in the quietest, calmest way that I could, knowing that human control of a powerful animal 10 times her size and weight is 90 percent bluster. That they can "smell fear" hardly begins to describe just how smart horses are, how perfectly keen on reading the body language and voices of their owners.

Trevor raised himself upright inside the pasture, and I couldn't draw my whip quickly enough. The mare bumped me off-balance with her shoulder and attacked him without further preamble. In seconds the scene flashed from me using all of my weight to hold the mare's head down as she reared and struck, to Trevor and her locked in a shoulder-to-shoulder, life-and-death battle. Her hooves sounded like well-drilling equipment pounding the ground. He happened to have been carrying a heavy metal mallet of some kind, and he used it with the force of a man fighting to save his own life. He may well have saved mine in the process. Nothing short of real, furious, relentless pain would have gotten that mare to back off. Trevor was not killed after all. And if you think for one second I have ever thought since, "aw poor baby horsie"    you've got the wrong girl here.

Horse people for some reason or another love to lay blame    that old human need to believe we can be insightful enough to control anything, I think. I've been over and over in my mind how I was duped into buying this horse, and what replays above all was my over-willingness to trust another mother. I had ascertained that the woman knew horses well. When her four-year-old daughter climbed into a small enclosed stall and not only crawled under the mare's belly and all around her legs, but handled the mare's weeks-old baby    I admit, I was duly impressed. While I would never have allowed my own young child in a stall like that, no mother would risk her own daughter if she didn't have complete confidence in the animal in there. Right?

Now I have three experts in agreement on this:  The mare was almost certainly drugged initially, and just trained enough to stand for the health inspection by a vet a little later. All of which is completely moot now. Once I saw Trevor fighting for his life, once I'd imagined another human being    as worthy of his human existence as my own children    dead on that pasture floor, I myself wasn't getting in there with that animal again. Maybe nobody was.

*  *  *

Whenever Tom Petty sings "you be the girl at the high school dance," I conjure a memory of the girl I was in the 1970s. She's pretty cool because, you know, you can do that with memory. Tightly wrapped in that young woman, though, are the confidence and the skills I learned growing up with and showing horses. They are less malleable than memory and more fixed in my mind and in my life. All I ever needed to know, I learned with horses, beginning with "I can take on something bigger than myself." Most especially on behalf of my children, I have been capable of mallet-wielding rage or bluster, as necessary. If I've been wrong about myself all these years, it's a damned good thing I didn't know it. But one newly acquired horse has called everything I ever thought I knew about myself into question. The consequences of being wrong could potentially kill someone.

For a possible answer (and if you're inclined toward long, strange trips), fast-forward from the 1970s dance to 2005, when I read a magazine piece that has rattled around in my head ever since. Lately, it's been knocking hard. For the original scientific article, go to your library or online and find  "FETAL MICROCHIMERISM IN THE MATERNAL MOUSE BRAIN," BY XIAO-WEI TAN ET AL. For Scientific American's distillation, see: Updates since 2005 I leave to individuals to find.

Here's my synopsis:

During pregnancy, stem cells from fetuses cross the blood-brain barrier, set up shop in the mother's nervous system and (in humans) live there for at least 27 years. Then the cells-- what? Isn't that the most fascinating question? Scientists are still working on that, but found that when they "chemically injured the mouse brains, nearly six times as many fetal cells made their way to damaged areas than elsewhere, suggesting the cells could be responding to molecular distress signals released by the brain." Makes perfect sense for the babies' long-term survival:  if Mama's not happy  --  or healthy  --  ain't nobody.

Forget that, though. Paradigm shifts are afoot. We may have found a biological explanation for what is called, in less polite or technically picky company, possession. And I have found a powerful filter through which to consider what happened to the young woman I once was. I've had five children. By my calculation, I have no brain cells of my own left.

I wish those scientists would come talk to me, as they proceed in their work to fully understand what it is our babies' cells are doing in our brains for 27 years. (But no, they're all concerned with implications for how the cells might repair damaged organs.) Suggesting they confirm that the phantom pain I quite literally feel when one of my daughters hurts    even when she is thousands of miles away    is probably out. But other aspects of motherhood might be more measurable. I would tell them to look for differences in the way mothers' auditory lobes work compared to all others, for example. Why is tuning out the crying baby or the whining adolescent akin to poking a stick in your ears? And why is it that, against all reason, I continue to bend over and pick up the socks, the slack and the tab, long past the time when I should?

Perhaps most interestingly of all, what happens to maternal / child welfare    and even a larger, universal welfare    should the stem-cell delivery system fail? Maybe a woman would risk her own child to make a sale. Maybe some other mother's child gets killed as a result. Maybe someone loath to do so must even consider the possibility of putting down the results of the sale.

*  *  *

Whatever the answers in XIAO-WEI TAN ET AL's particular realm, I've got mine. I'm not the same, because I've had children. In the Nature-vs.-Nurture debate, however, I argue that neither gets ascendancy. We can use our big brains to harness one and effectively subordinate the other. I press on. Demonatrix the Mare has gone to a professional trainer, one who in our first telephone conversation quickly assessed this baffling turn of events in my recently resurrected horse life and asked, "You're a mother, aren't you?" (To which I did not respond, "Is your name Xiao-Wei Tan?") I think we can safely say this trainer has no fetal stem cells living in his brain, and that for now, he may be a better match for this horse.

Hang in there with us, Trevor. We may all look the same, but the next time you come here, you'll be working with different animals.