In the interest of better human/horse relations, and as part of my continuing effort to educate the horse-sense-free, it seems appropriate to share some of the things I’ve learned from my horses over 40-odd years. For those who have only recently dropped into the horse world via a rescue horse or whose child has helped you take leave of your senses by attaching herself to some local equine, these hints may get you over a rough patch or two. Take these tips for what they’re worth; they’re straight out of the horses’ mouths.
- Horses don’t “need” to work, but they do enjoy it. If you’re worried that Buzzcut will languish without your daily training, you can wipe that concern out of your mind. Sure, he may lose muscle tone if he’s left to stand in a stall, but that would be abusive anyway, and not something the Caring Horseman would ever do. Your idea of work and his differ considerably. His job is to eat the grass in the pasture, run around when the mood strikes him, and keep the rest of the herd apprised of changes in circumstances. He’s happy in that job. But he also enjoys the games you have given him to learn. Whatever you call it—English, western, dressage, eventing, reining—it’s a game to him, and he’ll play it for as long as he can if his cooperation elicits positive responses from you.
- Breaks in routine are not bad for horses. Horses like to be able to predict how their days will go, but they’re not as wedded to the specifics as some humans would like to think. Physiologically it is best for Dust Mite to eat her grain at twelve hour intervals, but she’s not going to colic if she’s fed at 9 AM one day and 8 the next, though bigger changes might cause her to bolt her food figuring she can't trust you to tell time, and that can be a hazard. She may get confused and show up at the wrong time, but she’ll get used to it. Small changes can be good for a horse’s soul. Keeps things interesting. A horse locked into a routine will be more likely to be upset by necessary changes like long trailer rides or her owner’s sudden warped desire to show her in a daybreak halter class.
- Horses like to be around other horses. This is really important. The fact that Bungee screams like a banshee when strange horses are nearby doesn’t mean he’s not enjoying the interaction. Horses are herd animals, and they like interplay even in the barn. Let horses see each other and even touch each other whenever possible (and safe). There will always be tiffs, but the solution is rarely solitary confinement. In all fariness, there will arise moments when even the most sociable equine will sigh, "I vant to be alooooone", as stolid Leo recently did when he packed up and moved into his one-horseroom apartment in the front field, but he still wants the herd when the wind blows and the sun sets.
- Horses like to be around people. For the most part, horses—for no reason anyone has been able to determine—enjoy human companionship. Maybe it’s curiosity. We've got to be pretty odd-looking, and our behavior often defies even our own efforts at explanation. Try sitting in the pasture, just sitting on a rock or mounting block or whatever else is handy and safe, and just wait. At least one horse from the herd will come to see what you’re up to, and often he’ll opt to abandon the herd for a bit and just hang out with you. I got past a persnickety mare, whose rider found her displays of aggression during tack-up daunting, by simply sitting in the pasture reading. It didn’t take long for her to visit, and within a day or two we’d become reading buddies. From there it was a small step up to tacking without intimidation. I did read The Black Stallion aloud to her, but I don’t think that’s a requirement.
- Horses don’t necessarily feel better locked in the barn during bad weather. We have not reached a consensus at this point, but over the years I’ve discovered (and recent research by actual recent researchers confirms to be a 60/40 split vote) that some horses prefer shelter during lightning storms and high winds while others get nervous when they can’t see the source of the noise. Safety is all-important, so I opt to avoid a repeat of the bale-feeder lightning strike that sent my herd flying to spend the night in the farthest pasture behind an attorney's house (no subliminal message there, right?). High winds mean falling trees where I live, so anything more than 20 mph is sufficient cause for alarm. But extremely high winds that change direction generally result in a barn full of very excited horses when the storm has passed. They’re safe, but not necessarily happy.
- Horses get emotional over death and illness. The key to understanding this is to think like a horse for a minute. Sick horses and sick people smell funny and act wrong. This is disconcerting to a creature who relies on body language and odor for communication. Death means a pasture mate who had a position in the herd (you count as pasture mates in this regard) is no longer fulfilling that role. This not only requires some serious rethinking of the level of danger in the surroundings, but it also calls for an election with all the hoopla that accompanies it. Whether the process can be called “grieving” is still under study, but there is no question that loss is felt deeply and illness in one herd member or a human caretaker can lead to unusual behavior patterns that may baffle the casual onlooker.
- Horses are smart enough to know when something is amiss in their environment. If the entire herd is standing staring at the same spot, trust them to know there’s something there. It might not be anything of interest to a human, but it’s of interest to them. The interesting things category at my place includes the line of stopped cars at the entrance to the high school across the way. It also includes the bear ripping the siding off the chicken coop next to the pasture fence. Learn to tell the difference between a facial expression and body language that scream “predator!” and those that simply indicate bored horses who found a momentary diversion. As a group member, you are automatically subscribed to this service, so make use of it.
Horse behavior is often amusing, sometimes startling, but rarely impossible for the Caring Horseman to understand. Keep trying. You may be stunned to find out that you know more than you thought you did.