I have only been riding once a week lately...
...and my horse has noticed.
It is not like I usually ride six or seven days a week, but I do like to ride more than once. Four is a gift, two is tolerable, and three is ideal during the school year. I definitely ride more during the summer, but that is only a few months out of the year. I know that three times a week is not a lot by many people's standards, but it works for me and my horse and doesn't keep me away from home and other obligations. Gone are the days when I could lollygag at the barn for hours on end.
Unfortunately, the combination of needing to get things done at work and the shortened days has seriously cut into my barn time. The work has to get done sometime and usually now is a better option than later and I cannot control the sun. I am not shy about riding under lights, which we do have at the barn, but once the sun goes down it gets pretty cold. Also, and more significantly, my barn feeds much earlier when the daylight hours are short. Sure, I could ride and then feed Harley myself. He really doesn't make much of a fuss, although years ago he used to throw a bit of a fit. After many, many repetitions of continuing to ride while the feed was being dumped and making the work more challenging if he continued to carry-on, he eventually resigned himself to the idea that I would decide when dinnertime would begin for him. Once we crossed that Rubicon, he was quite tolerable of the fact that he may have to continue working even when the other horses were enjoying their food. But even so, I do not like to work him hard just before he eats grain, so dinner does hamper our routine and nine times out ten, I will end my ride early out of convenience. Standing around in the cold waiting for Harley to finish eating is even less fun (and much colder) than riding in the cold, so I prefer that he eats with the group. I also do not want his paddock mate to get a head-start on the hay they share.
I do not usually get overwhelmed by guilt when I haven't seen my horse in several days. I figure that as long as his bodily needs are in place (food, water, shelter, a friend and more food), he is okay, but I do miss him and he is one of my most reliable forms of stress management. Working more tends to create more stress, so not seeing my horse as a result is more than an unfortunate side effect. It is actually detrimental to the balance that I try to keep in my life. Stress is very unhealthy and, for me, it accumulates just by being around people all the time. I am definitely introverted and need time to recharge my batteries. Being with my husband or my horse makes them recharge all that much faster.
So you can imagine the sudden rush of mixed emotions that I felt when my barn owner called and told me that Harley was not finishing his grain and had been leaving more and more each day. Of course this was reason for alarm, but she did assure me that he seemed normal and not in the least sick. He would just eat a certain amount of grain and then decide that he was done and ready to go outside. I drove out to see him in the dark, ready to check his vitals and armed with allergy meds in case he was having an episode.
I found Harley munching hay happily with his buddy in the shed. He greeted me immediately by sniffing my hand and he touched my hand with his muzzle several times as I checked him from top to bottom. Not wanting to find anything, but also not wanting to miss anything, I looked for some sign of distress. His breathing was normal. His attitude was normal. His gut sounds were normal and audible just standing next to him, which is always the case with Harley. I also found a fresh pile of manure in his stall before I walked out to the paddock. His appetite, at least for hay, was clearly normal, as he continually stuffed his face the entire time that I was with him, only leaving his hay with a mouthful as he checked on me checking him out. He didn't mind that I was there, but he definitely knew that it was not typical for me to visit him in the dark of night. I left him, feeling better that he was most likely okay, but also realizing that I needed to make a point not to stay late at work tomorrow. Harley needed to go back to the top of the priority list.
The very next day, I made it to the barn in time for a group trail ride. We went for a nice walk in the woods, staying close to home, because the sun was setting. Riding in the dusk is a neat experience. The fresh air and the twilight atmosphere did wonders for my mind. Harley led the way with pricked ears and a pep in his step. It was a simple ride at no more than walk, but it was plain to me that he was happy.
Once back at the barn, I fed him, because I wanted to see him eating his grain. The dentist is coming out next week, so our thoughts were that he was due for a float and this was making it uncomfortable to eat grain. We gave him a little less than usual, so as not to waste his expensive food, and I stood with my barn friends outside his stall, talking and hanging out while my horse ate.
Fifteen minutes later, I look in his trough and it is empty. Harley is standing at his stall door bright-eyed and curious. I put my hand up to his muzzle and he sniffs it in the way he always does when we hang together. I start to wonder that maybe he just hasn't been expending enough energy lately to require as much of his high calorie food. I never like that he has to eat so much of it to maintain his weight, which actually looks very good right now. This makes total sense.
And then, one of my barn friends comments that she thinks he ate it all, because I am there.
Oh dear. I think my horse missed me.
I promised him that we would go for a "real ride" the next day and we did. He was wonderful, full of energy, but listening at every moment. He ate a snack of hay cubes and was eager for his after ride treats. Then I did feel guilty that I hadn't been forcing myself out to see him more often during the week. I need our time together, too. Even if it is just to groom or lunge, I am going to make a point to get out there more than once a week.
Message received, Harley, and thanks.