So, You Think You Love Horses? Some Reflections on the Nature of Horses and Man

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Some more observations about horses

splash splash

The Chestnut Mare just loved to splash.
Horses have personalities.

The Chestnut Mare wants to go in her stall.
Horses will communicate to you.
let me in

In my introduction I wrote a little about the nature of horses, and I thought that I would offer up a small collection of observations on their behavior. Horses will try to communicate their needs to people. We had a stainless steel stock tank for the horses’ water. One day it became empty and the Chestnut Mare wanted a drink. She put her leg in the tank and began to bang on the side of the tank until she got our attention, and we came and refilled it. It was kind of like the old jail movies where the prisoners bang their cups on the cell bars. Another time I was filling the tank and one of the horses, the Quirky Girl, wanted to take a drink at the same time. She walked up to the tank and lifted one of her front hooves into the air to get my attention. She did not want to drink while the hose was running and get her face splashed. I turned off the water. She took her drink and finally turned and left me to finish what I was doing.

In her book A Year at the Races (page 81) Jane Smiley quotes her animal psychic as saying, “All he wants is to have a look around. If he has a really long good look around and sees everything that is going on, he can figure it out.” Horses, like people, are curious, and I do not need a psychic to tell me that. We were having a problem with the electric switch in front of the stalls and had an electrician out to fix it. Our horses are allowed to wander in and out and my Horse was as curious as any sidewalk superintendent. I was standing there with the electrician and noticed that the electrician looked uncomfortable and realized there was this huge equine head breathing down his neck. I asked, “Is he making you nervous?” The electrician admitted that he was, and I led the horse away. Living around horses, you do not realize how intimating other people find them. Similarly, when the Petite Bay collicked and had to go to the veterinary hospital, she wanted to walk around and very deliberately smelled and looked at all the pieces of equipment in the treatment room. After doing that she settled down and cooperated with her treatment.

My Horse was just curious
but intimidating to the Electrician
We rotate the horses between pastures to prevent over grazing. When one pasture is all nice and recovered they often will stand in front of the gate to that field and look back at you as if to say,”How about letting us out here today.” Some horses also have been known to take matters into their own hands. The private school where we boarded the Chestnut Mare had a horse that figured out how to open the latch on his stall door with his lips. He would let himself out when he was bored. I have heard of horses that not only let themselves out but also the other horses in the stable as well.

In the dry heat of summer our pastures get depleted, and we must feed hay. We tried to allow the horses to graze on the lawn but soon found out that was a bad idea. What happened was that they decided to go exploring after their bellies were full of grass. At the time our road was unpaved and had very little traffic. There was this old wooden bridge across the stream that runs along our property line. The two loose horses got to the bridge and hesitated as if they were uncertain what to do next. They hated to cross that bridge and when we were riding often put up quite a fuss when we asked them to go over it. I was following them in my car and parked the car across the road blocking their escape back up the road. My wife and I approached the horses with halters in hand. When we got so close to them that we could nearly touch them, the two horses looked at each other for a moment. It was a knowing look that reminded me of that scene from the 1969 movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid with Paul Newman and Robert Redford, right before the two of them jump off the cliff into the river to avoid capture. Before we could get to them, it was clop, clop, clop across the wooden bridge and down the road. They may have made it to the next county but at the next road intersection one of them went inside of an ornamental post and rail fence line and the other remained on the other side of it. This befuddled them long enough that we caught the one which prompted the other to surrender to the “authorities.” Needless to say we never let both of them out on the lawn again.

We did discover that we could let one horse out at a time if we kept an eye on her/him. Herd animals do not like to be separated and with the others held hostage in the paddock one horse at a time could be allowed to go out. Our property is surrounded by trees and there are only a few points that an animal might leave it. I let the Chestnut Mare out to graze on the lawn one summer. As any property owner knows there are a never ending list of things that need to be done, and I was working in the garage and out of sight of the Chestnut Mare. I heard a sound and looked up. It was the Chestnut Mare. She had walked into the garage and was looking down at me. I knew instantly what she wanted. It was hot, she had enough grass, and she wanted me to put her back with the other horses. She followed me back to the paddock and through the gate.

Horses seem to have an uncanny sense of direction. My wife’s horse, who I call the Quirky Girl, turned up a narrow trial while on a ride that neither my wife, nor I, nor the horse, had ever been on. I said to my wife, “Why are you going up here?” She said, “I don’t know but Quirky Girl wants to go here.” I said nothing, and figured I would see how this played out. I was surprised to find that this was a shortcut back to the horse trailer that we obviously did not know about. In a similar vein, my new horse who I have called the New Guy has an uncanny habit. When standing at a fork in the trail, he always tries to turn onto the one that leads back to the trailer parking lot rather than those going deeper into the park. He has never been on many of the trails that he is trying to turn onto.

Leaving for the Fateful Ride into the Woods

As amazing as a horse’s sense of direction is, do not reply on it. The moment that you do they will turn into total dummies and you will also feel like an idiot for ceding your responsibilities to your horse. Here is a case in point. When we boarded the Chestnut Mare at the private school my wife got permission to ride a friend’s horse. There was a huge woods adjacent to the school that was full of riding trails. My wife was just starting to learn them and her friend said, “Don’t worry about getting lost; my horse knows the way home.” So, one evening we explored the woods. I rode the Chestnut Mare and my wife rode her friend’s horse. The woods were huge, and we went deeper and deeper through a maze of trails neither of us had ever been on by ourselves. Soon the shadows were getting deeper, and it was time to head home. We tried to retrace our steps and soon came to an opening in the trees that I was certain was the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. We broke free of the trees and saw not the grounds of the familiar private school but rather those of a state hospital which was far to the south and on the opposite side of the woods.

My wife at this point confidently proclaimed that her friend’s horse knew the way home and she gave the horse its head and back into the woods we plunged. Up this path and down that we went as the shadows deepened. I was becoming anxious but my wife repeated over and over that the horse would be our salvation. At last I pointed out to her a simple fact and even she would not deny it: the horse was simply going around in circles. We had passed to same tangle of brush for a third time. We decided to try to consistently work our way in one direction and again came to a clearing in the woods where we found a woman mowing her lawn on the western side of the woods. She gave us directions via the local roads back to the school but these were narrow county roads with no shoulders and plenty of traffic. They were no place to have a horse at twilight. My wife asked about the trails in the woods and the women tried, but just how to you describe trails in a forest to a person? Into the woods we plunged again and at this point it was dusk. We tried to follow the woman’s directions but it was nearly impossible to know if we were turning onto the correct paths in the deepening gloom. We came out of the woods yet again, and this time it was night, and in the distance I recognized the lights of the familiar private school. I was never so happy and swore that I would never do anything so stupid again. However, like most oaths that lasted only so long.

My wife once said to me that it seemed to her that the Chestnut Mare spoke to her. I laughed at the time but only because of the way she said it. There is a truth there. She spent hours with the horse schooling her in the indoor ring. Working full-time made evening riding the only option and one night she had been working the mare over fences alone in the indoor ring and had gotten off to adjust the height of a jump. The reins were over the saddle and under the stirrups but when my wife reached for them the mare retreated just out of reach. Every time my wife tried again the same thing happened. The mare thought this a fun game and much more interesting than jumping those jumps. Finally, my wife became so frustrated all she could do was cry. That was a very uncharacteristic behavior for a true horsewoman, and the mare knew it. Next thing my wife knew she felt the gentle nuzzle of horse lips on her neck and found the Chestnut standing next to her. Horses are very intuitive animals, and as herd animals they need to communicate with other members of the herd. This is a horse’s sense of communication and they will attempt to reach out to people with it. Often humans are too caught up in their own egos and preoccupations to hear and listen to this subtle equine voice. Mostly all they want is acknowledgment: a kind word, a gentle pat, a small treat. They want what you want: to know at the end of the day that there is someone who cares.

The Accidental Horseman.

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