Persistence pays

One of the things I really love about having my horses at home is being close to their private lives and I’ve learned a lot from just watching them. So when Ben came three weeks ago, I was interested to see how they would get on, because the last time Ben was here he was the only gelding with three mares – and life was easy. Now, Arrow is here and that was bound to change the dynamic. Over the past three weeks I have spent a lot of time out in the field, watching the horses as they grouped and re-grouped as a herd. It has been fascinating.


Ben chased Arrow off as soon as he saw him, and aggressively proclaimed his territory and his willingness to defend it. He wanted Arrow out of his sight and Arrow ended up on his own in the next field. Not for long though.

The first thing I noticed about Arrow when he came here was that he was very pushy. I put it down to bad manners due to never having been handled properly. After all, a horse can’t learn any social skills if he was kept on his own and tied to a stake since he was weaned. I have done quite a bit of ground work with him since, and Arrow is very clever and he learns quickly, but you have to be on top of him all the time; give him an inch and he will take the proverbial mile and more. Perhaps pushy is not the right word, but Arrow certainly doesn’t take “no” for an answer just because you say so.

Anyway, Arrow was on his own, and he probably thought that it was best to give Ben some time to forget about him and since the prospect of spending the night on his own didn’t daunt him he stayed out of sight. The next morning, he was back. Ben went for him the moment he noticed him, so Arrow beat a hasty retreat, but he didn’t go far. After a few more lunges, he had figured out the edge of Ben’s tolerance and that is where he stayed. Close enough that Ben kept throwing him dirty looks, but too far away for Ben to actually feel the need to chase him off. Gradually, with an almost professional use of the concept of “approach and retreat” and the least amount of effort he could get away with, Arrow began to move back into the herd. Ben found that no matter what he did, he couldn’t get rid of this irritating little interloper, so he decided to ignore him. For a few days they all grazed together in a group, with equal distances between them.
Then they began to pair off, with Ben and Minnie on one side of the field and Arrow on the other side with Cassie. I would have loved to see how that happened, but I imagine Ben decided to drive Minnie away, but he can’t drive Cassie and so Arrow ended up with a mare by default.

Ben went home this evening. It will be interesting to see if this experience has changed how they interact with each other now Ben is gone. Arrow has shown that size doesn’t matter; he may be small, but he is full of attitude. And he learned that it really pays to be persistent!

Ben and Rosie

Every summer for the last three years, Ben and Rosie have come to stay with us for the summer holidays. Now, Rosie is gone and Ben arrived on his own.

On the morning of Rosie’s last day, my horses came to the gate together and stood there, silently waiting. The day was muggy and oppressive,  the damp ground was steaming,  and the air was thrumming with the buzzing of insects, but instead of moving to higher ground and trying to find relief, my horses ignored it all and kept their vigil. They were still there, standing at the gate, waiting, when Máire arrived with Ben.

How do horses know these things? Because they do know. There is no doubt in my mind that my horses knew Rosie was leaving. The time these horses have spent together over the last few years has bonded them as a herd and it seems to me that they are connected in ways far deeper than we can understand. Ben and Rosie live 20 miles from here, but that distance meant nothing. I can’t put into words the feelings they invoked in me when I watched them, but I was deeply moved.

In the evening, I go out into the fields to find the horses and I watch them as they graze. Ben is with Minnie and Cassie and they stay closely together, concentrating on the serious business of finding the choicest grasses and the best herbs in the hedgerow. It is good for Ben to be here, in the company of my horses, his herd.

Good bye sweet Rosie, we will miss you.

Small pony, big change!

I have often thought that having a foal would be good for Minnie and I seriously considered it. The question was, what would I do with a foal once it was here? There is no market for horses in Ireland anymore, so there is no point in breeding a horse with a view to sell it; the country is full of horses that nobody wants to buy.  I probably wouldn’t want to sell it anyway, even if I had a buyer. If Minnie had a foal I would keep it. But lovely as a foal is, I really don’t need one. I don’t need another riding horse, I already have Cassie, who is young and needs lots of time. I don’t think it’s right to breed a horse just to put it out to pasture. I also think that putting a mare in foal to a nice stallion is easier said than done; there is no way I’d bring Minnie to a place where she’d get all trussed up and hobbled before she is subjected to a stallion whether she likes him or not. And it can cost quite a bit of money too. So, no foal. Sorry Minnie.

Sometimes, when you get lucky, things fall into place and the right thing happens at the right time. Because even if I didn’t think a foal was a good idea, I still wanted to get Minnie a companion. And then Arrow came into our lives. When I put him in with Minnie and Cassie last Sunday, they reacted as I had expected. They paired up and made it clear to Arrow that he was the intruder and to expect no quarter if he crossed the line. Poor Arrow was clueless; having never seen another horse since he was weaned, he didn’t know where that line was and he had no idea how to behave. He didn’t seem to recognise the warning signals either and he made silly mistakes. Trying to get his nose in Cassie’s bucket…not clever. Cassie didn’t accept any excuses of youth and inexperience and taught Arrow a few hard lessons in which he collected several bum bites for his trespasses. But even that first day it was  clear that Minnie was intrigued by him.

The following day Minnie and Arrow had paired up and they spent a lot of time together. Cassie was not interested at all and kept her distance. Then, when I went to check them that evening, I noticed to my astonishment that Arrow was attempting to suckle and that instead of chasing him off, Minnie allowed it and seemed to enjoy it.

It made me feel sad; so many foals get weaned when they are far too young and many of them are put in a field without the company of other horses and as a result are thoroughly traumatized. That Arrow was traumatized by the experience became very clear over the past few days: he has reverted to foal behaviour and he stays close to Minnie at all times. And Minnie loves it. She looks after him and displays a tenderness towards him that I find very moving.

 I have never seen Minnie as relaxed as she is now. There is no need to put her in a stable when I take Cassie out. For the first time ever Minnie can stay in the field and she shows no sign of anxiety at all. She calmly watches me leave with Cassie and close the gate, and then she will turn around and move away, taking Arrow with her. It is such a relief to me. I actually didn’t realise until now how worried I’ve always been about Minnie and how she was always on my mind, even when I was working with Cassie. Now I can take Cassie out and I don’t have to worry or feel guilty about putting Minnie in the stable and as a result, I am far more relaxed with Cassie than before. All Minnie needed was this little pony.

And….trot!

Over the last couple of months our neighbour has been building a house. The boundary between his land and ours is close to the picadero and that is also where the new house is. Building is a noisy business and although the house itself is up, there is still quite a bit of activity going on around it. It has made the picadero a spooky place to be for my horses, exacerbated by the fact that they can’t really see what’s going on as the view is blocked by a stand of mature pine trees. After they freaked out a couple of times I decided not to use the picadero for a while, because I didn’t want them skidding around on legs that were not fully healed. I did a bit of in-hand work with them in my yard, which worked very well, because the yard has a pea gravel surface so there is good footing and Minnie and Cassie are very relaxed there, but now that I have started to do a bit more with them I want to be able to use the picadero.

I thought about how I could make the picadero a place where they would feel at ease and how I could avoid a building up of negative associations with the picadero. I want to be able to focus and keep their attention on me, and that wasn’t going to happen if  the horses were constantly distracted or spooked by the activities next-door.  I also don’t want the horses to see the picadero as a place of work, but rather as a place of fun, somewhere to play in. So last week, I opened the gate to the picadero and left it open and then I just waited to see what would happen. And gradually, Minnie and Cassie have incorporated the picadero into their routine.

They started by going in to roll every now and then. The surface of the picadero is a mixture of sand and pea-gravel, and they love it. Cassie usually digs a massive hole and then rolls only once, although she might dig a few more holes afterwards, but given the chance Minnie will go down in several spots for a thorough rolling session. An added benefit is that it is great for their hooves, they look as if they have been polished when they come out.

When I let Minnie and Cassie out of the yard in the morning, they can go up a little track to the back fields, or they can go down to the front. They much prefer the front fields. It’s more sociable because the house is there and they always seem to enjoy grazing close to the house. On their way, they pass the picadero and going in for a roll is part of their morning routine now. Cassie doesn’t always let Minnie roll as long as she likes, and after a few days I noticed that Minnie had started coming back on her own during the day for more rolling. Soon Cassie started doing the same. 

Except Cassie doesn’t just go in to roll, she actually goes in to play. She’ll knock a few cones around, walk over a few poles, canter a bit or do a few bucks and rears. Cassie has a high play-drive and when she’s in the mood she can entertain herself very well. I’ve always thought she’d be a great horse to teach a few tricks to; I’m sure she’d enjoy it.

The other day she made me laugh out loud: Cassie noticed that Minnie had gone in. She followed her and while Minnie was still luxuriously rolling around, Cassie trotted up and drove her from her spot. Then she proceeded to longe her. She drove Minnie to the perimeter of the picadero and pushed her into a trot and she walked a smaller circle on the inside herself. It was a perfect example on how to longe a horse: Minnie trotted steadily in a relaxed manner and although the gate was open she made no attempt to escape.

It was funny and I just had to laugh, but it made me happy too. From where I was standing outside the picadero Minnie appeared to be completely sound, and although she was not fully tracking up, it is a huge improvement to see her trotting at ease on a circle! I’ll have to longe her myself now and see how she goes, but it looked good. I just hope she will longe as well for me as she did for Cassie, I’ve never tried longeing either of them at liberty with the gate open!

On lions and coming home

I’ve been away for a week to visit family and during my stay I watched a documentary on a group of lions in a zoo. The zoo is in Holland and they have tried to create environments in which the animals can live as naturally as possible. The lions have a huge space and the terrain is varied. The pride consists of a lion and 6 or 7 lionesses. One of the lionesses had had a litter and she had been separated from the rest of the pride to give her privacy with her cubs. The documentary showed the day that the lioness and her cubs were going to join the rest of the pride. The zoo keepers did this by allowing the pride to enter the space where the lioness and her cubs were, out of the public eye. They started with a couple of lionesses and the pride lion. As soon as the lionesses spotted the lioness with the cubs, they attacked. The voice-over mentioned that it was three months since the pride had last seen the lioness and that she had lost her place in the group. She would need to be accepted into the group again and the fighting was unavoidable. It looked vicious. The cubs were terrified and ran away, one of them even climbed a tree almost to the top, while their mother was on her back, fighting desperately to keep her assailants off her. Meanwhile, the male checked out the cubs, who were spitting at him and showed their readiness to defend themselves if necessary. The voice-over informed us the lion was making sure the cubs did not belong to some rival, and that this was a tense moment because he might kill them if he did not accept them. The camera showed a view of the vet on call, sedation rifle at the ready just in case. The male decided he was ok about the cubs and his attention focussed on the fighting lionesses. Quick as lightning he threw himself into the middle, tore them apart and roared at them until they all backed off. Eventually, the tension seemed to dissipate and the little cub in the tree slithered down to the ground and joined his siblings at his mother’s side. Then they let in the remaining lionesses and again, they attacked immediately. The other lionesses joined in again and the male was fighting like, well, a lion, to restore order. It was obvious that the amount of violence was shocking even the keepers, there were worried faces and a second vet arrived. Eventually, the group sorted itself out, the gates to the main area were opened and they all left, ready to resume their normal, everyday life.

That images of that documentary are still in my head. It was not normal behaviour for lions. Lions are extremely social animals and in the wild a lioness with cubs would never isolate herself from the pride. On the contrary, lions have creches where the babies are minded by a few of the lionesses while the rest go off to hunt.  The aggression of the lionesses in the zoo was far from natural. Human decisions were responsible for the incredibly violent attacks on the lioness with cubs. I can understand that they wanted to keep the lioness away from the public to let her have privacy and raise her cubs in a quiet environment, but I couldn’t help wondering if they couldn’t have done that without separating her from the rest of the pride. The level of human interference in the lions’ social structure seemed wrong, even if it was done with the best of intentions.

For most animals, living in the human world means that their natural behaviour is either impossible or seriously curtailed. The stress this brings can show itself in many ways, displaced behaviour, vices, aggression, but inevitably the consequences must be that things sometimes go wrong. We make decisions for our animals with the best intentions, but it has to fit in with our own lives and sometimes are options are limited or we don’t fully understand the implications of our decisions. I started thinking again about what happened between Máire’s and my horses. When Maire brought Ben and Rosie over early this summer, we just put them in with Minnie and Cassie and assumed all would be well. After all, last summer Ben and Rosie’s stay had been very successfull and the four of them had seen each other regularly during the year. We never thought it through and that was a mistake. Last year, the circumstances were completely different. Most of the time, all the horses were together in the fields; Máire was on holiday so Ben and Rosie were enjoying their time off, Minnie was on rest with the tendon injury and I gave Cassie a bit of a holiday too, I only took her out for two rides. For the horses, the situation was stable and predictable. This year the circumstances were completely different, Ben and Cassie were taken out of the field regularly, both together and on their own, and there were other changes as well. This must have been stressfull for the horses, something we failed to recognise. We should have offered them some structure, a pattern they could recognise and anticipate. In hindsight, there were warning signs that all was not well long before trouble started, but neither of us picked up on them until it was too late. In the end, with Cassie hurt, Máire and I decided we couldn’t risk anything else happening and we put Ben and Rosie in a separate field from Minnie and Cassie.

When I came home, I couldn’t wait to go to my horses. They heard me coming up the track, and long before I could see them I could hear Minnie whinnying loudly. When I came into view, even Cassie whinnied softly. They were both obviously very happy to see me. Cassie stuck to me like glue, even following me into the tackroom through a narrow door and she jealously kept me to herself, keeping Minnie away. In the end, I put them into their stables to give both some private time and a long grooming session. When I came into her stable, Minnie leaned forward so we could exchange breaths. Then, as I started untangling her mane, she yawned and yawned and yawned. I felt home.

Later I walked up to the house. Ben and Rosie watched me, ears pricked, eyes soft. I went up to greet them. I felt a twinge, that we can’t keep them together. Not paradise. But it’s the best we can do.

Just a quiet afternoon

The sky is overcast and it is warm and muggy. There is no wind and the horses are plagued by horse-flies. I put a head collar on Cassie and we walk to the gate. Minnie follows. I open the gate to let Cassie and myself out and then step aside, holding the gate open. Minnie decides she wants to come too. I close the gate behind her and walk to the yard leading Cassie.  Minnie trails along behind us, stopping every few steps to pick at the grass, but as we turn the corner to the yard she trots up not wanting to lose us from her sight.

Cassie is still lame and although there is not much swelling anymore, there is still heat in her leg, so I hose it down again. As I scratch her neck to help her stand still Cassie starts grooming my back with her muzzle. She does it gently, no teeth. When I have finished hosing I put arnica gel on her leg in the hope that it will help with internal bruising. Afterwards, I spend a long time in the stables with them. Minnie’s right fore could do with a light trim, she is still not putting her full weight on it and she wears her left fore quicker, so I take care of that. I do carrot stretches with both mares and afterwards a thorough grooming and I do their mane and tails. They enjoy it, there is lots of yawning and I leave them relaxed and dreamy-eyed.

When I bring them back to the field, Ben stands at the gate. I ask him to move before I bring the mares in. I take their head collars off and to make sure nobody gets trapped in the gate area I move them towards the centre of the field, so they have plenty of space. I get the wheelbarrow and skip and begin cleaning the toilet area of the field. Heavy work that I don’t particularly enjoy, but it gives me the chance to observe the horses without being intrusive.

They are fine. The four of them are well spread out across the field, grazing peacefully. Slowly they move into the next field, then they disappear for a while as they go down to the stream for water. All is quiet. I finish with the wheelbarrow and leave them to it.