A reflection on equine friendships

One thing that’s come about during my now eighteen years with the same horse has been an awareness that yes, she has an emotional life.

As herd animals, horses will form attachments to other horses, other creatures, and humans. They are predominantly hard-wired to be social beings and find safety with others. But that doesn’t mean they won’t have opinions about other beings, whether they be other horses, other animals, or the humans around them. Sometimes those opinions mean that the horse only cares for certain beings, and would prefer to be alone rather than with beings they don’t prefer. Even other beings of the same species. In other cases, relationship bonds–sibling, dam and offspring, friends are so powerful that the horses remember each other even after a long separation.

It’s also true for horses and the humans in their lives. One truism I’ve heard passed around in training barns is that it takes a year after purchasing a horse to form a bond with it–from the horse’s side of things, that is. Horse and human have to negotiate all those little details of a relationship–what are the behavior boundaries between horse and human, what are the handling preferences of horse and human, and, most importantly–how responsive are horse and human to each other’s language, both verbal and non-verbal?

I think the latter piece–learning each other’s specific language–forms a large part of that “one year to create a bond” element. Unlike dogs or cats, horses are not particularly vocal. Oh, there’s the various nickers you get, but that’s just the tiniest bit of the communication process, and is shaped more by the tone of the nicker or human voice than actual words expressed. For example, the other day, one of the broodmares in the herd Mocha was running with was starting to get pushy–communicated by lowered head, flicked back (but not pinned) ears, and swishing tail as she approached me while Mocha was also coming. I snapped the mare’s name and Mocha–plus the others in the herd who knew that tone of voice from me–all froze. Mocha got a worried expression, even though it wasn’t her name, because she knew I wasn’t happy with someone.

Well, we got it worked out. Mocha got her medication and her treats, and the offending horse went away.

But that emotional piece and relating to other horses as well as humans plays a large factor in working out situations like this.

Mocha’s natural inclination when in a pasture is to be somewhat standoffish except for certain horses and only a few people. It’s odd, because when she was in the training barn where college classes were held, she was friendly to nearly every human who came in, prone to begging for treats until I got firm and said “no, treats only from me.” However, she had strong opinions about the other horses in the barn. Some horses–like her neighbor Adam–were very good friends. When she was on stall rest due to severe white line disease, the two of them tore a hole in the wall between their stalls so that they could touch noses. Other horses–like one brightly marked Paint gelding–were seriously disliked. The Paint gelding tended to bully other horses and would double-barrel kick some he disliked. Mocha ended up provoking him into chasing her, then evading him by ducking and weaving through other horses, or turning more sharply away from him than he could turn. I watched her do this in turnout, several times. She tends to be more agile than a lot of horses, even in her old age.

But it wasn’t only bully geldings she disliked at that stable. There was one mare who made a big deal out of Mocha getting treats. Well, this mare wasn’t exactly the best-behaved, either in the stall or the arena. Mocha’s ears would go back, then she would dramatically begin to lick her lips in a rather exaggerated fashion while the other mare made a fuss. If another horse was misbehaving in the arena, Mocha’s ears swept back every time she went by them. Once past the problem horse, the ears went forward. The behavior carried over to her current living situation, where if she sees a horse acting out, she frequently just refuses to look at them.

However, she is and was capable of fast friendships as well. There was one mare that she only saw at the same horse show, for three years in a row. The other horse’s owner and I were in many of the same classes, so we would wait together at the in gate and visit. The two mares took a liking to each other and would stand together quietly, sometimes lightly exchanging breath. When Mocha first moved to pasture life, she formed a very tight bond with one mare that was somewhat problematic at the time. Over the years of herd and pasture life, she went through bonds with weanlings (although after a few encounters, she reversed her attitude and is now “stay away from me, kid.”), other mares, and even one obnoxious connection with an elk yearling that joined the horse herd (and was rather problematic–trust me, you do NOT want your horse adopting an elk as her “baby”!). These days she has more relaxed friendships, though they’re enduring even though Mocha and her herd friends are frequently separated during the summer (the other mares may be raising a foal, or in a different field, or performing).

One close relationship she has developed during her summers, frequently spent alone in one field, is with a neighboring gelding. Last summer the spouse and I joked that it was a tale of “As the Pasture Turns” because there were times when one or the other horse would go into a snit fit where they wouldn’t respond to the other horse’s call. When the gelding would call Mocha when she was in one of those moods, she would utter a deep, groaning sigh that was clearly “again? He’s so NEEDY.” Then go back to licking the salt block or hanging around with me for scratches. Or she would call and call and he would just hang out in his shed or a spot of pasture where she could see him, but he wouldn’t answer her calls.

I rode her back to that summer pasture today. I had seen him earlier in the week when I was checking the fences to make sure they survived the winter (three feet plus snowdrifts can sometimes do things to a fence). About halfway up the hill to the gate where I would put her into the field, she started nickering, clearly remembering the presence of her gelding friend. Her friend answered. Back and forth calling between the two until I turned her loose. She galloped to the fence to meet him. Very shortly after, the two were grazing across the fence from each other, together once again for the summer. She hadn’t seen him since October.

So it will be “As the Pasture Turns” until October comes again, and she’s ready to rejoin her winter friends.

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