A herd of mustangs ruled a peninsula with lands bordered by the forest and the sea. The horses raced from grasslands to beaches. They swam in shallow waters, played in the sands by the freshwater streams, and rested in the shades of oak and maple groves. For years, they followed their dappled lead mare. She made the herd decisions. She found them cordgrass and giant reeds to eat. She uncovered safe ferns, explored shrubs and sweet maple saplings, and located new springs of fresh water.
One summer, this boss mare gave birth to a chestnut foal. Although her son was healthy, he was born late in the spring. For months, he was the youngest in the herd.
"Why do the other foals pick on me?" he asked her one day.
"They're trying to play," she said. "You're the smallest now. You're strong and soon you'll be big. Your feeling of being picked on will pass."
She pushed her son with her nose. It was a gesture she had used with her other children. She had nudged them playfully for as many years as she could remember. It got the same response from her chestnut son as it got from her earlier foals. He laughed.
Weeks went by. Her son grew strong. But he did not grow out of the teasing.
"Why does everyone hate me?" he wondered.
"They don't," said his mother. She nuzzled him, nose to nose. "Now that you're strong, you are playing too rough with the smaller horses. You need to be more gentle."
"They're not gentle with me!" he complained.
"Nevertheless," she replied.
More weeks passed, then months. Her son grew stronger. He grew wilder. His father, a roan stallion, barely tolerated the immature males. Her son made himself especially difficult to endure. Other immature males teased and tested one another. They bickered, they pushed, and they nipped at the other young horses. That was hard enough. But with her son, the teasing turned into fighting. Others would laugh and chase one another out of play. Her son turned angry and violent.
"Now even the stallion hates me," he said.
The mare remained silent. Her son had observed the truth. He had developed a bad relationship to the other males, his father included. He would find no help anywhere but his mother. He'd made enemies even among other mares.
"If you could refrain from violence in reaction to teasing," she offered, "in time everything would be better."
"I'm just teasing back."
"When you do it, it's bullying. Don't you see the difference?"
"There is no difference."
"Ah," she said. She stepped closer to him. "I can see that you don't understand what the other horses are doing. When you were the smallest, you were teased in a way that makes you misunderstand your situations now."
"I tried to stop the teasing. I told you that."
"No, that's the wrong way. The other horses' feelings are hurt when you don't tease or don't allow them to tease you. You are showing no trust in them."
"What does teasing have to do with trust?"
"When you don't respond correctly, it shows that you don't trust them. Then they become angry. If you let someone nip your tail or knock you in the shoulder, you show that you trust they will do you no harm. It's a matter of confidence on your part. You need to understand they're not trying to fight you. A gentle poke between friends helps to establish trust."
"Teasing is mean."
"It can be. It can be cruel or a test of strength. Usually, it's neither. Teasing is the first step to establishing friendship. When you allow teasing, you show trust in another's intentions. It is a judgment that the other horse is honorable. When you react appropriately with a similar push or nip, you show that you, too, can be trusted."
"This is a strange way of thinking, mother."
"You haven't thought this way before, so you've overreacted. You pushed the teasers too hard. You've been hurtful. That's a double violation of trust. The other horses expect you to push them or chase them, not to kick them or shout insults."
"Is that why everyone's angry?"
"When other horses your age stopped teasing you so much, you thought that was good. I did, too. But we were wrong. It was a warning sign. They no longer teased you in order to make friends with you. They approached you only when they wanted to do you harm."
"What can I do?"
"Approach them. Tease them. Let them tease you back. Earn their trust." She pushed her son with her nose. He snorted.
She nipped his mane. He laughed.