Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Memoirs: A Girl's Horse Learns the Horse Language, Part 2

Part 1

My horse could not speak his own tongue.  After riding and handling him for a short time, I had discovered that he was a very fast learner and was more than eager to communicate, but he seemed at a loss as to how to communicate with members of his own species.  He was not a loner.  He did not possess an aloof bone in his body, which seemed to be causing a large part of the problem.  Harley craved social interaction, any kind of interaction with any kind of creature.  He immediately took a liking to the barn cats.  If we met one in the aisle, he would drop his nose and press it against the cat's side, breathing deeply.  Sometimes, he would try to sniff under the feline's belly, almost lifting the cat off of his toes.  The barn cats were usually starved for attention no matter how much petting they received, so they tolerated his affections, wrapping their slender bodies around his long nose.  Unfortunately, the ponies in his paddock did not share the cats' tenderness.

Hardly a day passed without a new patch of missing hair on my new horse.  His coat is light, but his skin is black, which always reminds me of a polar bear with a dark, velveteen nose.  This made for very obvious battle markings.  Although the ponies were not cutting into his flesh, each attack left irregular, dark areas of bare skin.  I recognized that they were not actually hurting him, so I gritted my teeth and tried not to look at the ugly, smooth blemishes.  The problem was not unsolicited attacks.  The problem was that Harley was treating the ponies exactly as he treated the cats.  Once released into the paddock, he would march over to the nearest pony, totally invade his or her personal space, extend his neck and begin sniffing them all over.  Needless to say, he did not get very far before retaliation ensued.  The ponies were not impulsive.  They warned him to keep his distance as soon as he approached, but he was deaf to their messages.  I watched him boldly ignore their body language, which became louder with frustration.  The bald patches looked a fright, but he seemed not to care even when they were administered.  I never saw him run or fight back.  He just kept trying to sniff them, following them around, until the two ponies had flattened ears and baring teeth with fire and brimstone in their eyes.

Do not cross an angry pony.

To my dismay, Harley's behavior became more disfunctional the longer he interacted with the half-pint horses.  Upon showing up to the barn, I was told that he had tried to mount the pony-mare.  I cannot even imagine what her response must have been, although I do not think that he repeated the attempt, which says enough.  I had noticed that his registration papers were completed with the text "Stallion", but this had been crossed out with a black marker, the work "GELDING" printed in all caps above the original entry.  Very classy.  I hoped that he was not proud cut, but figured that it was just another result of his social deprivation.  Harley's misguided seduction was probably most offensive to the audience of afternoon lesson goers.  I sighed when he looked at me with the same innocent face.  I hope you will be over this soon.

Harley's next mishap was blatant disregard for mealtime hierarchy.  The larger pony-gelding was supposed to be first, then the pony-mare, then Harley.  At least that was the visible plan according to the half-pints and my human interpretation of the hierarchy.  Harley did the unthinkable.  He walked up and stood next to the large pony waiting at the gate.  He did not mind the swishing tail or rolling eyes.  He was not fazed by the twisted muzzle or trembling hindquarters.  I distinctly remember his shining eyes looking right into mine as he reached his head above the gate, eager to see me.  In hindsight, I feel a little guilty.  Did I contribute to his brutalization?

In a frenzy of flexing muscle, flying mane, and snarling muzzles the ponies let him have it.  For the first time, he realized that there were rules.  His expression was complete surprise.  The warnings had been more visible to me, a mere human, than to my horse.  Everything happened so fast, that the only detail which sticks in my mind was the pony-mare lunging forward, just millimeters from his eye, clamping her jaws and coming away with a mouthful of black mane.  He seemed to disappear backward, away from the gate as the half-pints relinquished their posts.  My poor horse.  Maybe it was for the best.  Surely he would remember this lesson, at least as long as his bruises ached.

The violence of the ponies' discipline was enough for me to speak up to the barn owner.  I was assured that the horses were very calculating and they would not actually hurt each other.  I cited the example of the pony-mare coming very close to my horse's eye.  I was again assured not to worry.  Instead of walking away with mitigated concerns, I felt like a dismissed newbie.

A few days later, I would have to put my foot down.  I brought Harley in from the paddock and began grooming him for a ride.  When my brush grazed his withers he buckled, dropping away from the pressure.  I gasped at his sudden reaction and tenderly touched his withers.  He flinched again and looked at me.  Further examination revealed bite marks.  It appeared that a horse, most likely the larger of the two ponies, had clamped down on his withers, leaving two half moon injuries on the left and right sides of his spinous processes.  That was it, no more ponies.  I had had it.

I spoke to the barn owners and it was agreed that he would change paddocks.  The best option was the turnout with two other horses and a very gentle Icelandic horse.  I knew that the alpha of the bunch was a toughie, but I doubted that he would be as ruthless as the half-pints.  Within the year, he and Harley would become very close friends.  He was assertive and unyielding, but I believe that he was just the sort of leadership that Harley needed.  My horse would thrive under his tutelage.

Unfortunately, the best laid plans of men (and women) can be rendered foolhardy when it comes to horses.  Despite my concerns for my horse's well-being and socialization, I could not teach him how to communicate with his kin or explain to him why he was moved to another paddock.  A week after his move, he showed me my mistake.

To be continued...

Part 3


  1. When Speedy G first came to me he had bite marks all over his whole body. Unlike Harley, he was pretty afraid of any other horse. It took several years to teach him that a horse could ride up to us and pass or that we could do the same. He still has some fear issues which are seen in the dressage warm up. I've blogged about that a bit already. I don't know which is better: being beat up with no fear, or being beat up and afraid!

    I can't wait to hear the rest of Harley's story!

  2. I think it's good he was moved. Those little half pints were really tough on him. I don't know what's coming but I do believe that he'll be okay with a few kinder lessons from the new horses.

    Our horse Grady was a sequestered show horse for most of his life. When we took him in he really didn't know how to interact with all the other horses and they kind of beat up on him sometimes. He's doing okay now and has found a few friends to pal around with. He's learned his place and he's happy to stay there.

  3. Loving the story - cursing the cliffhangers! ;)

  4. Speedy's Mom- Poor Speedy was traumatized. At least you know why so you can help him through it. Warm up rings are not fun even without a horse who remembers being hurt.

    Grey Horse Matters- I did not appreciate the impact a solitary life can have on a horse. There were not even other horses on the property. It makes me very sad to think about Harley like that, but at least he probably does not remember. I am glad that it worked out for Grady.

    Calm, Forward, Straight- You do not like those, do you? I promise not to leave you hanging for too long. Sometimes there is too much story for one post! ;)

  5. This story reminds me of Fred, and our attempts at the dog parks. We haven't been to another one yet, I do continue to get invites. Maybe this week-end we will give it another go. It's so hard for me to see him so out of place. He really is a happy dog, it breaks my heart.

    You have a wonderful way of writing, I want to turn the page...and I can't.

  6. Soon Mary!

    I remember reading about Fred's plight. I felt badly for him, too.


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