LittleField Notes: Horse Sense
by Ryan Foxley of Arlington, WA
The mind of a horse is a conundrum, at once simple in its straightforward predictability, and mysterious in its random unpredictability. Fortunately, it is the predictable side of equine behavior, and its consistent nature that generally win the day, allowing us to accomplish what we are able to do with the horse. An understanding of the fundamental nature of the animal is necessary to establish a solid working relationship. This knowledge will inform every horse/human interaction, from feeding, grooming, and training, to field work and riding. We who rely on, and care for, these animals must continually ask ourselves: are my interactions and expectations of my horses, during the course of chores, work, and training, in accord with, or contrary to, his natural behavior and manner of thought? How can I use the natural inclinations of the horse to better harmonize my relationship with him? That is, on the one hand to avoid accidents, frustration, and disappointment, and on the other, to augment the enjoyment, pleasure, satisfaction, and working capabilities that can be had from a way of life which includes working horses (or mules, donkeys, or oxen).
After long experience a person can develop an almost innate understanding of the fundamental nature of the horse. This is what I think of as horse sense, a term that seems to have fallen out of use in recent decades. But I like very much what the development of horse sense entails: that of a lifelong inquiry into the mind of the horse, his habits, behavior and natural tendencies. It is almost impossible to teach horse sense, or to learn it from a book. It is rather something learned from many years of daily interactions between horse and man. Horse sense is being able to read the body language of a horse, to anticipate what he will do before he does it, or at least to anticipate what he’s most likely to do. Horse sense is what guides a person who is, for example, trying to catch a horse in an open field, pick up a horse’s foot for trimming, or avoid getting stepped on while working in the close confines of a tie-stall. Learning to anticipate a horse’s action before he acts is at the core of good horsemanship.
Horses are by nature fairly simple animals, quite predictable in their ways and their needs are not great. They like the company of other horses, a good roll, a long drink of water on a hot day, and plenty of quality feed at regular intervals. It is by asking him to do all manner of intricate, frightful, and difficult tasks, many of which go against his very nature, that we humans complicate matters for the horse. He does not by nature want to be confined, or restrained, and will be happiest in a large space where he can see a good distance. Because of his evolutionary upbringing on the steppes of Central Asia, he is still, at least in his own mind, fundamentally a prey species, and when confronted with danger, his nature is to take flight rather than fight. So, given that a horse does not wish to be confined, and that his tendency is to run away from danger, it is somewhat surprising that someone back in the mists of time took a notion to use a few straps of leather, some bronze hardware, and a length of hemp rope to harness a horse to a noise making, rattling, squeaking contraption and ask him to pull it around in a calm and collected manner— an absurd notion, if you really think about it. But give credit where credit is due: humans for being clever enough, and having courage enough to try it, and horses for being clever enough, and brave enough, to go along with it. It’s really an extraordinary working relationship we’ve established, that of man and horse.
After spending the better part of a lifetime caring for, and working with horses you may feel that you’ve developed your horse sense to a high degree; things will go along just fine for weeks, months, even years, with horses acting like horses and you responding in kind using your years of experience to cultivate a fine working relationship. You go about your days respecting their nature and they respecting yours in a beautiful state of symbiosis when frap! out of nowhere a horse will do something unexpected and sometimes utterly inexplicable. Take what happened to me recently as a case in point.
Along about mid-January after mucking out the loafing sheds, the chicken coop, and the milk cow pen, I had a mountain of accumulated manure and bedding that needed to be spread on the hayfields. For various reasons related to my own health, unfavorable weather, and the need to help multiple family members in distant cities move, I’d not been able to keep up with my usual winter spreading. Finally the stars aligned such that I could start in on the work. The manure was destined for the upper field, which features a pretty steep climb up the gravel lane from the barn. We would be loaded going up and empty coming down. I knew that if I was to stay at this task all day I would need four horses on the 75 bushel EZ Spreader. My crew consisted of fjord gelding Ole, Suffolk/Fjord cross mares Stella and Luna, and 3 year old Suffolk gelding-in-training Jimmy.
With the exception of Jimmy, the other horses had made countless trips up and down the hill on the manure spreader and many other implements besides, and in many different configurations, from single to four-abreast, and Jimmy had been doing so well over his past few drives that I wasn’t overly concerned about him and his ability to handle the task ahead. As such, I was really looking forward to passing a pleasant day with nothing else to do but work these four horses. So imagine my surprise upon coming down the hill after spreading the first load, when Ole, who was on the right side tongue position, took fright and started leaning against Stella, who was hitched on the other side of the tongue. He was seemingly trying to escape some terror on the downhill side. He was leaning so significantly with his feet slipping out from under him that I was afraid he was going to fall right over. Then Stella, in the interest of preserving her own balance, in turn started leaning against him. I stopped the whole outfit for a moment to let everyone calm down and for me to assess the situation. Seeing nothing out of the ordinary we continued on. It was a struggle to keep everyone together and moving down the hill, but there was no turning back. This stretch of road just below the house is not where you want to get into a pickle. It features a fairly significant drop-off on one side, and a steep slope above on the other. When we finally got to the bottom, all four horses straightened up and walked smartly over to the hitching rail. I clipped everybody in, jumped on the backhoe and refilled the spreader. Against my better judgment, I decided to straightaway take out another load, optimistically hoping the problem would solve itself, that Ole would realize there was no boogeymen lying in ambush on the road to the barn. Alas, it was not to be. The same scene repeated itself all over again, with more insane leaning and frantic slipping of hooves on gravel. Something was terribly wrong, and I had absolutely no idea why. After again tying up to the hitching rail, I decided I had better change things up. I moved Ole to the outside right-hand position and took another load: same thing, only now Luna was doing it too. Now I began to worry, were my horses instructing each other in irrational fears? I puzzled over the fact that the previous day, I had taken a load out of the barn with Stella and Luna on the smaller John Deere spreader with no problem whatsoever, they had just walked down the hill like it was a walk in the park. I scratched my head in consternation as I walked back up the road, looking and listening for something unusual, some harbinger of doom that would cause a horse to panic. Nothing; at least nothing that I could detect. I went back to the drawing board and shuffled the hitch again, hoping to see some improvement. This wasn’t just an academic exercise, I had a lot of actual work to accomplish, and I simply had to find a way to ameliorate this bizarre situation. I don’t know the mathematical formula for calculating the number of different potential configurations for a four abreast hitch, but I worked my way through a fair number of them before I finally, finally found a configuration that suited each horse. In the end Ole ended up on the far left so that when we returned to the barn he was on the inside, away from the drop off, while Luna was most comfortable in the right hand tongue position. And the only horse I didn’t have a stitch of trouble with? Three year-old Jimmy, the one horse that day who wouldn’t have surprised me with squirrelly behavior, worked calmly and on an even keel in any position I put him.
This story illustrates how you can spend decades working horses and get to feeling pretty smug, thinking you fundamentally understand the nature of the horse, and that there’s probably nothing left that would surprise you, when suddenly, a horse will torment you, test you, humble you. I found a solution that day, for a problem that I am still completely ignorant of. These are horses who have worked with each other on all sorts of machines and in many different combinations over many years. The road between the house and the barn is the most traveled on the farm; it leads to everywhere. If something had recently changed in that particular spot, it was clearly beyond the perception of my feeble senses. And if something terrifying truly did exist, why would it only affect a horse’s state of mind when hitched four-abreast? Why not panic with three-abreast, in a team, or single? And why were some positions free from anxiety and others not? I was relieved in the end to find a solution, a place where every horse felt comfortable so we could simply go about our business, because a day of field work really should be a smooth, comfortable, and pleasant experience for man and horse alike. If the development of horse sense over long time and practice gives one a sense of comfort and confidence around equines, horse sense also acknowledges its own limitations. Once while discussing an older Percheron gelding, turned pure white with age, one of my earliest teamster mentors, The Old Sheepherder, Frank Rhodifer told me, “Yes sir, you can do anything with that old horse: put a kid on him and tie lit firecrackers to his tail if you want; he won’t come out of a walk.” Then he paused, and leaning forward looked me straight in the eyes and said purposefully, “but you remember this: you don’t never trust a horse; trust him, yes, as far as it goes, but never a hundred percent. Just when you think you’ve seen every trick in his playbook, he’ll come up with something you hadn’t thought of yet. At the end of the day, he’s still eighteen hundred pounds of horse, and he doesn’t think like you and me, and you got to respect that.”
I am in the barnyard on a delightfully mild early February day checking on our brand new Suffolk filly, born just days ago. She’s all cuddly soft with tiny hooves stuck on at the end of gangling giraffe legs, and the most beautiful, most innocent eyes, and the softest most tender nose, sniffing and searching to learn something of this great unknown world that she’s just tumbled into. Her world is all hay and cedar shavings and the warm blanket comfort of mom, who stands with that special inimitable patience only mothers have. The new one searches, nudges and teases at a teat, trying for a bit of milk. Successful at last, she drinks, her little mouth pulsing in perfect rhythm, drawing strength from that warm mammalian wonder that is milk. What a portrait! Raphaël himself could not improve upon it. For a long moment I lean on the fence rail and watch, smiling in wonder. At last she finishes her breakfast and strays inquisitively out the open gate and into the barnyard, bravely hazarding some time away from mom. I hunker down on my heels and she walks haltingly over to sniff my outstretched hand. She is trusting and mostly unafraid, this one. I decide it’s a good time to orient our new dear friend to this quiet little corner of the world which will be her home. I’m not sure how much she’ll understand, but I proceed to tell her the story of her place nonetheless.
“Oh Ruby, (for that is your name) what great times we will have, you and I, together with your whole equine family here in this old barn that has known so many births before yours. This barn will be your home, and of course the fields around as well. Step over here and I’ll point them out to you. If you look there, just beyond that fence that lines the ditch, you’ll see the Waterfall Field, where lives the giant old growth cedar, spared by the axes and saws of those who cleared these fields more than a century ago, the base of which marks the short path through a thicket to the waterfall itself. There in the bowl at the base of the cliff you’ll find a little paradise, all emerald green, and granite grey, with thick carpety mosses growing on the branches of trees, and ferns in turn sprouting up out of the moss: life on life on life. You can if you like, take a refreshing drink from the pools and shallows that form at the bottom of the cascade. In summer, shade and a pleasant cooling mist will provide a welcome respite from the heat. In winter, after a big rain, the falls will rage and roar, and create its own weather, with a thick spray blowing through the turbulent air, driven by the shear force of all that water tumbling, roiling, falling, falling. At this time of year the falls becomes a place to visit not for comfort and repose, but a place to witness nature’s drama and fury.
“The next pasture over, the one just below the barnyard where we now stand, and on the near side of the ditch that carries the water from the barn spring into the river — that’s the Lower Field. Not much for a name, I know, but it describes it pretty well I think, sitting there the way it does in the bottoms with a fairly substantial marsh in the middle. You won’t find a lot to eat in those wet spots, mostly swamp grass and buttercup. In the spring of the year the marsh is the source of the nightly frog chorus. You’re sure to enjoy that when it starts up here in a few weeks. The sweet amphibious chorale will lull you to sleep every night right up until June and the gradual onset of summer. By then the nights will be warm and pleasant and you’ll find you miss their company. I suppose though, if they sang all the year round, their song wouldn’t be so special, would it?
“And that next field there, off to the east, is the one we call the Shire. I’ll tell you briefly of how it came by its unusual name. To begin with, to call it a field is not really a good descriptor at all, for it really is its own little country, much like the imaginary one it is named after. You’ll be delighted to know that it has three different terraces, each with its own savory blend of grasses and the sweetest of clovers. Each level is connected one to the other by a series of lovely paths through the woods which separate the plateaus. In the bottom you’ll find the charmingest, secretest corner of the farm, with its ancient alder grove growing just above the river, swift and wide at that point. When I walked down here for the first time many years ago, its verdant, pastoral loveliness reminded me immediately of the land of Hobbits—the Shire. I half expected to see Frodo himself, sitting with his back against a tree reading a book, smoking a pipe, with the faint allure of elven song wafting silkily from the depths of the woods to the east.
“If you cross the rough, cedar planked footbridge that traverses the skunk cabbage slew, you’ll find the most lovely trail wending its way up through some of the nicest timber on the farm: second growth cedars, hemlock, and fir mostly. Before long you’ll arrive at the middle terrace. Another delightful grassy haven. With the woods all around, it is sheltered and always a bit dark, lovely on a blazing summer afternoon. On such a day you’ll be dappled by sunlight filtering through the branches of the trees stretching up to such heights that you can scarcely see the tops. Off to one side you may find traces of an old campfire ring, long gone cold, and some rough hewn tent poles, evidence that the farmer’s sons, all grown men now, camped here not so many years ago, pretending to be hobbits off on a grand adventure through their very own Middle-Earth.
“Another short trail up through a thicket will lead you to the third and highest terrace. Here you will be greeted by a sweeping view of the upper part of the farm: the mountain will rise majestically off to your left, and to your right, in a westerly direction, down at the end of the lane, behind the row of elegant cedars, is the garden and farm house. You may find yourself puzzling over the strange mound out behind the house. It seems to exist with no apparent reason. How does a hill 50 yards wide and 10 high end up in the middle of an ancient river bed-turned forested plateau-turned hayfield? Was it once an enormous stump pile, now composted down and covered over with soil and grass; or was it a huge granite boulder, which managed to thwart glaciers, inland seas and rivers, to stand, now covered in grass and blackberries, as a monument to antiquity? Or was it created by some other, as yet undiscovered means? (Oh, and don’t tell anyone just yet, but I have a secret plan to plant a little vineyard on that mound, where I think wine grapes will thrive on the gravely, poor soil with good drainage and lots of sun.) In any case, and whatever it’s origins, you’re sure to enjoy the good grass in the upper field that wraps around the house and garden, though not until late summer or early fall, for it is usually the last pasture grazed before winter feeding commences.
“Speaking of winter feeding, in a few short years you and I will together, along with your brothers and sisters, mow the grass in this field and make hay for your winter ration. Oh how you’ll love to go out on the mower, to take that first pass through grass as high as your head, snatching nibbles the whole time. Like a kid in a candy shop you’ll be! The work will be hard, and you’ll be tired at the end of the day, but you’ll soon find that this work is what you were meant for, what you were born to do. Now that we’ve come to it, I think I was born for it too, just like you, born to live out my days under the sky, ranging through these woods and fields. Perhaps we’ll be lucky enough to grow old here together on this old ranch down on the Stillaguamish, in the grey shadows of the Cascades, out on the edge of the continent.
“Oh, do you feel that? I believe it’s starting to rain. Ruby, my sweet sweet Ruby, let’s head for the barn and find your mother before she gets cross with me for keeping you out too long.”