Category: behaviour

Equi-Vision

Mel had left the stable block to take the ten minute walk down to the paddocks. My horse was already in and we had been chatting for some time while I groomed. I didn’t know this woman very well which didn’t matter as horse women generally only talk about subjects pertaining to equines. Mel was a tall strapping lass in her mid-twenties and was fairly new to riding and after several lessons had decided to get a horse on loan. This is an arrangement that can work out far cheaper than paying for regular riding lessons. The owner of the horse was on the yard frequently so Mel wasn’t thrown in the deep end, help and advice was usually on hand. Mel was happy to feed, groom and have a walk, sometimes a trot around the arena. She had no aspirations of going on a 6 mile hack or competing at the local shows. Max was a gelding with a quiet, gentle personality and the situation seemed amicable.

15 minutes had passed since she had left to catch Max and my mobile started ringing, it was Mel. She was out of breath and screeching down the phone that she had been chased out of the field by another horse. I knew which horse she meant, and although he was very dominant, I had never heard of him chasing anyone.

My experience with this horse is that he would try to follow to the gate when leading another horse out. He wasn’t anxious about being left alone as there were other horses sharing the same field. I always got the distinct impression he was trying to cut off the horse I was leading in an attempt to herd it up. On occasion I would be walking through the field just to check the water trough and he would follow me, if I ignored him he would get so close that his muzzle would brush the back of my head.

There are times to correct such behaviour and times to ignore it. This comes from understanding the environment, the specific situation and reading their body language. There would be little point in sending this horse away on every single occasion, there may be a time when I need his trust. Constantly acting aggressive will not help me on a wet windy day when I need to catch him in. Hanging out with me and simply being curious as to what I’m doing when cleaning the water trough is not the time to be waving a rope in his direction.

Bowing his neck and trotting around me in a circle is the time to stop such behaviour. There’s little point in continuing to walk. People often head for the gate only to find themselves in a precarious position once there.

Stop walking toward the gate.

This is the worst place and situation in which to rectify a problem. Stop and face the horse, or horses. Stand your ground while communicating to them to desist following. This isn’t a situation that should be rushed. Don’t turn your back, don’t keep walking. Keep sending the horse away until it understands not to follow.

They will understand!

If a horse appears aggressive and wants to send you out of the field, you are basically obeying it by heading toward the gate. Don’t leave until you are ready, and it is safe to do so.

I took the 10 minute walk down to the paddock to find Mel leaning on the gate, her face was red and puffy and I could see she had been crying. I asked her to go into the field with me, but she flat out refused. We could have spent just 15 minutes in that field and learnt why the situation had developed, and how to avoid it in the future but in her mind now the horse was dangerous.

On leading Max back to the gate Mr Dominant displayed his disapproval and trotted over. I turned to face him, unclipped the lead rope from Max’s head-collar and gently swung the rope to and fro toward him. I didn’t let him pass or circle around me, I simply indicated he was to come no further. Max and I left the field without incident.

But what has Max learnt?

Max has learnt that Mel isn’t in charge, he has seen Mel run away and been ‘sent’ out of the field. In terms of herd hierarchy she is beneath Mr Dominant. Every horse in the field will understand this…also every horse in the adjacent fields. Horses understand strength and weakness, dominance and subservience. They watch and they learn, it’s what horses do. Learning to ride and groom is such a tiny part of horsemanship. Invest 99% of your time in learning about herd dynamics, instinct and psychology. Watch their body language and understand what they are saying.

I saw a grey mare this morning watch me as I walked up the track, I knew I didn’t need to call to my horse as she would very quickly check to see what the grey was looking at. My horse looked over and also spotted me, then the coloured mare looked in the same direction. That’s now 3 horses looking over. The mare in the adjacent field then also turned to look, and as she did her foal stood up and looked toward me. I was a good distance away walking on wet grass, they wouldn’t even have heard me, yet all the horses knew I was coming. I knew how it would unfold, and it was magic to know this and watch it.

So while every horse in Mr Dominant’s field will have identified he is more dominant that Mel, they would have also noted I sent him away, I’m more dominant than their herd leader. Every horse in that field and adjacent fields will have understood. Although herd dynamics can shift and change, with correct communication and being aware of my own body language, I’ve made my own environment much safer in dealing with any of these horses.

Horses in stables on busy yards are also watching, they may appear to be calmly munching on hay but horses are very alert animals. They are always aware of everything occurring in their immediate environment.  Spend enough time on a large yard and you will notice its always the same people having accidents, the same people who fail to catch a horse, or get dragged when leading. Then there will be one or two people who rarely have problems, can catch that horse, and never get dragged. The horses have watched, they know who is weak and who is strong, who to follow and who to ignore.

They are watching you…always.

The Natural Born Killer

The gentle horse roams silently in the paddock while softly swishing her tail, two mouthfuls of grass are grazed and a hoof moves forward creating a steady rhythm that is soothing to watch. It’s a beautiful autumn day and a Red Admiral carelessly surfs the soft warm breeze. At least that’s how I like to remember this day, the reality is not quite as poetic. It’s an autumn day and there may have been a butterfly, a moth, maybe a few dung beetles kicking about.

My horse catches my eye because she is behaving peculiar. Her head carriage is relaxed, which somehow makes this even worse, and she is twisting her front right leg on the spot in semi-circular motions. Of course I go over to investigate and she doesn’t move, I also see nothing on the ground in the vicinity of this one hoof. The semi-circular motions continue and it’s quite a bizarre sight! I push against her to encourage her to move but she stands her ground so I reach down to pick the foot up. She resists me, but after a few pulls I have lifted the hoof and underneath… I see fur. At best I think it’s a patch of rabbit pelt, the remnants of a meal from a fox or kite. But as I lift the fur it’s heavier than expected, in fact I soon discover it’s an entire rabbit. My horse has pummelled this poor creature into the ground, and she has done it without a care in the world.

But our gentle equine friends don’t kill, do they?

I was enjoying a steady canter on this mare through an open field, my only other companion being my faithful labrador who would run alongside us effortlessly. We must have disturbed a hiding fox as suddenly one darted out in front of us, to which my dog took off in hot pursuit, unfortunately…so did my horse! She quickly outpaced the dog and I had to scream at him to get out of the way. Rather than being trampled he barrelled sideways down a ditch. It was too late for me to stop this rather bizarre ‘bolt’ as I had already been at canter, I had already wasted a few precious seconds trying to save the dog and I had never even for a second anticipated my horse would chase a fox. My mare’s head carriage was very low, rendering the bit useless. Her nose was 2 inches from the floor and 6 feet behind the terrified fox. Her ears were pinned flat to her head and she was without a doubt either going to sink her teeth into this fox or strike out. Eventually the fox used the same tactic as my dog and I lost sight of it as it also barrelled sideways down a ditch and disappeared into the undergrowth.

Other incidences of my mares murdering ways involve squishing rats in her stable and chasing dogs out of her paddock.

HORSE ATTACKS DOG IN UNLIKELY GAME OF CHASE

In all seriousness, it isn’t just my horse that kills, all horses can kill. In fact horses are somewhat formidable killing machines. But the horse is a ‘prey animal’ you may be thinking, maybe…for a lion. This term gives people the idea the horse is defenseless and will run away from anything. This couldn’t be further from the truth and horses will quite often stand their ground. A stallion will protect his herd, a mare will protect her foal, and these are the same instincts that are alive and well in that horse that stands in the stable eating hay.

I can understand my horse probably recognised the fox as a predator, perhaps she saw me and the dog as part of her herd, and she is without a doubt a dominant mare. Rats are creatures that scurry around her feet and perhaps she’s been nipped, perhaps not, maybe she is being territorial…perhaps she just doesn’t like rats! The killing of innocent rabbits in the field has me scratching my head however, is she protecting the limited resources or is she being territorial or both. It’s tempting to think she was just being aggressive for the sake of it, but animals rarely expend energy for absolutely no reason. Also when I saw her stomping the rabbit none of her body language exhibited aggression, she looked very calm in-fact. …answers on a postcard please.

I have never seen evidence that any of the animals she has killed have been consumed, not played with, or even chewed. I have only once witnessed a horse picking up a dead bird and began eating it. I will never know if this horse intended on swallowing the bird as the owner (understandably) removed the bird from the horse’s mouth. Although I have seen a video of a horse eating chicks and its uncomfortable to watch. The video shows dry dusty ground that is depleted of grass, so perhaps the horse has no choice but to eat them in order to survive. There could be evidence of miss-management in this case because rather than remove the horse to grass, or provide hay, or indeed save the hapless chicks from being consumed…videoing of the event was seen as far more important.