Monday, April 15, 2013

I love my life!

Early spring afternoons have their own special flow.  Early spring afternoons when we say, "F*#% the gardening; I'm going riding!" are even more special.

So here I am on a special early spring afternoon, typing with dust-covered fingers, smelling of horse, because I said, "F*#%; I'm going riding!"  But that's not the point of this post.  The point is that, once more, my horses have taught me something, and I feel the need to share, if not the fact of what they taught, at least the fact that we always have more to learn, and that life with animals is a never-ending learning experience.

What I learned today was this:  Sometimes it's not the "out there" that's scary to our horses, it's the "in here"--something in their hearts--that's scaring them.  And more importantly, sometimes (not always) we are the cure.

Dolly grazing "at liberty" on the front lawn this afternoon moments
before she stepped on her lead, got upset, and I looped it around her neck.
There followed a few minutes of her glued to my side as the lead rope was far
too snake-like to be acceptable.  And then...voila!  Freedom!

For the past few days my lovely inherited mare, Dolly, has been keeping the herd from accessing the wonderful grass in the upper pasture.  I opened it as part of my usual rotation, and expected hysteria and lots of quiet munching.  I got the hysteria.  The quiet munching, not so much.  Dolly found something in that familiar field that set her teeth on edge, and she responded by driving the herd out of the area.  She allowed them minimal access, then they were banned and banished from further excursions.  She did this every day for the past three days, sometimes five times a day.

Today I got it in my head in one of those sketchy, "A-HA!" moments, that if I rode her, the rest of the Boyz, sans her personal wild hair, would meander up there and enjoy a much-needed, post-winter snack.  That's not what happened.  It's never what we expect.

What happened--after the ride, after the grazing on the lawn which was its own learning experience for the newly-returned mare, and after the post-ride fussing and grooming--was that Dolly got her bitch on and drove the herd up into the field that had been terrifying her.  Now, this is a mare who, from the get-go, relied heavily on her bond with her rider to get her through the tough parts.  Jess always contended that she's very dependent, and now that she's mine (as opposed to my daughter's, with me as onlooker), I am beginning to see what that means on a daily basis.  It's not just under saddle that she expects her human to give her direction; it's also on the ground.  So our little "I swear you can graze the lawn with the lead looped around  your neck" moments translated into, "Damn!  I'm tough enough to face that pasture with my eyes wide open!" Off they went, and I couldn't help but smile.
Dolly can't help but smile either.

But that's not all I learned today.  I've posted before about horses learning from other horses.  I don't care that researchers deny the existence of such behavior; I've seen it in my barn, and I was pretty sure I had a grip on the concept.  Then I had Pokey put down.

Pokey was Zip's mom, and with the exception of a month when I boarded the big guy out at a dressage barn, they'd been together.  Pokey had her quirks, and one of them involved intently licking the board outside her stall door after she ate.   Every meal.  For 18 years.  Her attention pretty much dissolved the 2x4.  Zip, her babykins, followed suit, and I assumed this was an idiosyncracy I'd have to live with until ...well, forever!

Not so.  Pokey went down on March 13th.  I'm here to attest, exactly a month later, that from the moment his mom disappeared from the barn, Zip has not given the wall more than a cursory lick.  Not once.

So I need to amend my supposition that horses learn from each other.  What they do is imitation, not learning.  As long as Pokey was two stalls down and fully committed to wall-licking, so was Zip.  The minute she was gone, so was the habit.  Not learned, imitated.  What an eye-opener!

Granted this is about as anecdotal as evidence gets, but for me it's huge.  I would love to hear from my readers who have seen similar behavior.  Even more, I'd like my readers to be totally aware of the beginnings and endings of behavioral patterns and what connections they find with things going on around the stable.  This could be the start of a whole new understanding of equine behavior...or not. In any case, it's interesting and worth exploring, don't you think?

Let me know what you find out.  Me?  I'm going riding.

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