Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Memoirs: A Girl's Horse Learns the Horse Language, Part 3

Part 1
Part 2

April 2007.  My husband and I were eating dinner.  It was the first evening of spring break, a long-awaited rest for a first-year teacher.  I had plans to ride my horse every day.  Why go to the Caribbean when you can stay home and ride?  I remember feeling utterly content.  Just happy.  Then the phone rang.

We decided to let the machine get it, since we were having dinner.  I heard the barn owner's voice and then my heart jumped into my throat.

"Hi Val, Your horse jumped out of the paddock.  I already called the vet.  He is okay, but he did scrape both hind legs..."

My fork went flying.  I was scrambling for the phone with blood pumping in my ears.  I thought she said "break", "he did break both hind legs".  What?  Oh no.  This can't be happening.  I felt sick.

The story goes something like this.

One of the barn owners was in the feed room preparing grain, when he heard hooves in the aisle.  He called out "Hello?", but when no one answered he peeked into the barn.  There stood Harley, alone and noticeably injured.  The barn owner immediately called to his wife, who called the vet and they assessed his injuries as painful, but probably minor.  Then I got the call at home.

In the meantime, the barn next door was in full swing afternoon and evening lessons.  Since our paddocks are clearly visible from next door, more than one person actually saw the event.  My horse gathered himself, ran at the fence, and jumped the vinyl fencing near the gate.  He did not fall upon landing, but did drag his hind legs across the top of the vinyl fencing.  There was enough give in the fencing to accommodate his fault, but not without leaving nasty, raw burns down both hind legs.  Apparently, he walked to the barn in search of help.  He was dripping urine, which concerned the vet.  She prescribed antibiotics, a regiment of cold hosing and bute, and told us to keep a close eye on his ability to pee.  She said that a horse only drops urine like that for one of two reasons: he landed on his bladder over the fence, which was serious, or he was so scared that he lost it all over himself.  Either way, she said that the pain was probably enough to deter him from ever repeating the feat.  She also warned that the hind legs swell up like stove pipes, even if the injuries are superficial.  Let spring break begin.

So my plans to ride every day were swapped for nursing my horse.  No matter, I was eternally grateful that he was in one piece.  Harley's hind legs were badly scraped, but his wounds were more like rope burns than open abrasions.  As promised, they swelled up pretty good.  Miraculously, he was never lame.  It was not long before I was tack-walking him and his ears were flicking back hoping for a request to trot.  I do not like to think about how different things could have been if he had not landed on his feet.  And thankfully, he never made a second attempt.

May 2007: The remnants of his injuries are the dark, curved lines on the fronts of his hocks, cannon bones, and stifle (cringe).  The marks are no longer visible.

May 2007: Harley next to the fence he jumped.  Mad man.

Why did Harley jump?

He was not chased.  He was not bitten or beat up.  In fact, he had already demonstrated that he did not run from negative attention.  The conclusion that I keep coming back to is that he thought he was with the wrong herd.  Regardless of how nasty and aggressive the half-pints were, he was trying to get back to those ponies.  I suppose the draw may have been the pony-mare, not that any of her interactions could have been misconstrued as affection.  Maybe some of their lessons were sinking in and he wanted to continue the hazing process.

I did not allow Harley to return to the ponies.  Coincidentally, the pony-mare was sold soon after and left the property.  Harley screamed repeatedly as the trailer drove away from the barn.  I could not help feeling sad for him.

From the left: Harley, Blakkar, Cisco, and Flash.  Harley seems to be trying to make himself small in these early days.

Thankfully, he made a gentle friend in Blakkar, the Icelandic horse, and slowly began to understand the cool leadership of Flash, the paddock alpha.  Flash's consistency and energy were an excellent model for Harley.  It was not long before my horse was second at the gate.  Eventually, horses changed paddocks for one reason or another and Harley and Flash became a turnout pair.  Flash's strictness seemed to fade and the line between them became blurred.  Harley rarely suffered a bite mark.  Both horses greeted me in the paddock and they stood side-by-side at the gate for meals.  At dinnertime Harley and Flash were led to the barn together.

I do not recall exactly when it happened, but one day, I noticed Harley moving Flash.  He did this gently, with just a twitch of his ear.  I also noticed Flash dozing more often, standing at Harley's flank.  Flash had never enjoyed Harley's olfactory fixation, but now my horse could run his muzzle all over Flash's body, smelling him to his heart content.  I did not think it possible, but they switched places.  There was no fanfare.  No argument or injuries.  Flash just stepped aside and Harley assumed the role of alpha.

I have heard that it is very stressful for the horse to be the alpha.  This is part of the reason why even a dominant horse will seek comfort in a confident human.  After years of ruling the roust, Flash decided that he could let go.  He was noticeably a calmer horse, with Harley looking after him.  He was also older than Harley.  Flash passed away in July 2010 during a heat wave.  It is funny how things work out.  Flash was sent to a large farm with lots of pasture to live out his days on grassy hills.  Since the move was planned, we arranged to put some hay and two horse acquaintances with Harley on the day of Flash's departure.  I was not there to bid him good-bye, but I am told that Harley barely batted an eye, content with his new charges.  Flash colicked and was gone just five days later.  Harley was spared the experience of seeing his friend in any form other than a strong, happy horse.  I tried to look for signs of sadness in my horse.  I remembered how he had screamed after the pony-mare.  Perhaps, Flash had taught him to be stoic.

Flash.  This picture does not do him justice.  He had a long thick mane, sun-bleached highlights, and liquidy dark eyes.  He was a handful under saddle, but warmly affectionate with his owner.  He greeted me with a daintily arched neck and a delicate sniff every time that I went to get Harley.  I missed him as soon as I heard he was leaving and even more when he passed.

May 2007: Flash, the constant educator.
Picture time is no time to forget the rules. 

December 2009: The old Flash would never have stood behind another horse.  I think that this picture captures how graceful he was and the understanding which he and Harley shared.  I wish that I had more pictures of them together.

I am grateful to Flash for teaching Harley the horse language.  He taught Harley to be eloquent.  When my horse needs to move his buddy, he flicks an ear and walks toward him.  He always gets first pick of the hay, but he will also let his buddy eat from the same pile.  He is first at the gate for meals, but allows his paddock mate's owner to retrieve her horse without trying to barge through an opening.  He knows who the other alphas are on the property, which ones are for real and which ones are bluffing.  If a younger horse, playing for the throne, kicks the stall door when Harley walks by, he ignores it with a cool indifference.  Thank you, Flash.

Was Harley always an alpha, but lacked the skills to assert his status?  Or did he truly learn the language of the horse and graduate from apprentice to master?  Only one individual can answer those questions for sure, and he is not talking.

April 2011: Harley and Cisco greet each other like this every morning after breakfast.  Attempts have been made to introduce a third horse, but Harley usually chases the new charge away.  If a third horse would just let him sniff,
I think it might be okay.


  1. Val - what a great story! You seem very observant of how the horses interact with one another. It takes a discerning eye, and patience, to read their subtle body language.

    My mare, Montoya, was the alpha mare. Her dominance was almost palpable. No horse every questioned her role as leader. And I rarely saw her do anything aggressive to prove she was the lead horse. Even with me she knew that she was a leader. It was like two foreign leaders at a summit. She agreed to my terms, but only if I asked with respect.

    Thanks for sharing Harley's story!

  2. Thank you Karen! I am eagerly awaiting the story about your Montoya.

    Harley lets me lead, but he will test the boundaries now and again. He also communicates opinions and information, which is a neverending learning process to decipher. Like a perpetual stomp when I walk by a leg means there is a tick crawling up the leg. If I cannot find it, he keeps stomping until I do. He also has no qualms about telling me "you're doing it wrong" with regard to lungeing, riding, trimming, or ground work. The icing on the cake, however, is when he tells me that I am doing it right!

  3. Wonderful story, thank you for sharing. He seems to be a very smart boy.

  4. If we take the time to listen, they can tell us a lot! And you're right, I love it when one of them lets us know we got the right answer. It always makes me feel so smart. :0)

  5. Thanks Mary!

    Karen- That is the best!


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