Sunday, June 7, 2015

Bite Me, I'm Herd-Bound

I have three horses here at my mini-farm.  Together, they are a herd.

Horses are herd animals, like antelope and bison.  Before these three knew each other, they belonged in other herds.   Before they came here, they had all lost their herds.

You can't say to a horse, Listen, I'm taking you away from your herd, BUT, and here's the thing, you're going to be fine.  You're going to have a new herd with new horses on a nice farm where you will be well cared for.  Don't worry!

You could say that to a horse, but it wouldn't make much of an impression.  It wouldn't make the horse feel better.  It wouldn't make him feel less stressed out in the trailer as he was driven away from his herd and brought to a strange new place that didn't smell particularly like horses.

Fire and Belle came first. Belle already knew and trusted me, but Fire didn't know me from Adam. He raced around our pasture with his tail flying like a visiting-team pendant.  Where are my boys? he might have been saying.

He had come from a herd with two young colts.  For over a year, he had watched over them and taught them how to be horses.

Tanner, our palomino, came about a month later.  From the farm up the street, his mates had been sold off one by one.  He was the last to go.   We could hear him calling from his pasture on the hilltop.

Helllooooo???

Belle and Fire would call back, Helloooo!

Are you a horse???

We are horses!  Are you a horse???

I am a horse!   Where are you, horses???

We're over here!!!  Where are you, horse???

I'm over here!!!

Good to know!!!

A little while later, Tanner would start up again.  Hellloooo???

A horse who has lost all his mates and is by himself, (except for a barn cat and a dog, who, under the circumstances, can provide a modicum of succor), is generally distressed.  So, I bought Tanner, and I added him to my herd.  (I should also add, he was a lovely yellow thing, shining like a penny in the sun.)

Tanner was approximately ten years old, a rescue horse without a paper trail.  A dent on his nose where a halter had grown tight gives some indication of his early travails.  I lurched back onto my ass on the (thankfully) rubber mat when, from his stall, he lurched out and bit me in the neck.  Just a superficial scratch over the jugular.  Could have been  worse.

Fire, the elder statesman, was not thrilled about the young interloper. Tanner was small, but unscrupulous and vicious.  Fire was appalled to find himself striped with bald hide where he'd been strafed by Tanner's teeth.

Understandably, Fire's ulcer began to act up.  Ulcers are common to Arabians, and Fire, a Polish Arabian with a sensitive outlook, was no exception.   I found him late one summer evening lying on his side, clearly in distress.  He couldn't get up.

This was my first experience with the dreaded colic.  I finally coaxed him to his feet, but he appeared completely miserable.   You're supposed to get them walking, so that things inside them get moving in the right direction. He would take a few steps and then stop to rest, obviously in pain.

Pretty quickly, the veterinarian arrived, and diagnosed gastric colic.  She gave Fire an injection against the pain and inflammation aggravating a roiling and convoluted alimentary canal. Forty-five minutes later, Fire was perfectly comfortable in his stall, on his feet.

Crisis averted.

All three horses seemed strung out, that summer.  It compromised their immune systems.  Their parasite counts went way up.  All of their eyes blew up with allergies--Tanner's face was suppurating plasma. Belle broke into hives the size of wine bottle corks.  Fire threatened to colic every time Belle went into heat.  Drama city!

If you've ever brought home a dog from a shelter, you've experienced separation anxiety.  After one-and-a-half-years in shelters, my dog Gretchen was so glad to be adopted, she couldn't hold her bowels in the car beyond a quarter mile from our house. She figured we were taking her back to the shelter.  I figured this had probably happened to her a few times.  Eventually, we could drive a mile down the road to my son's preschool; then, a mile and a half to the dog park...I'm not saying there weren't accidents.  (There were.) But, six years later, she's right as rain.

All three horses had separation anxiety--and it centered on Belle.  She was the focal point of the herd. The geldings were never far from her.  If I had Belle on a lead, Fire and Tanner would happily follow behind, without any lead attached to them at all.  If they doddled, Belle would call to them, and they would pick up the pace.  If I put Belle in the barn, the geldings would come along of their own accord and settle into their own stalls, which were beside and directly across from Belle.

A few weeks ago, my neighbor up the street asked me to bring my horses to her pasture to chew down her grass, which was copious.  It was a fool's errand, since three horses could hardly be expected to make a dent in so much acreage, though they could founder in the attempt.   (Too much sweet spring grass is bad for horses' feet--go figure.)

But, I wanted to be a good neighbor, so I brought Belle over to their farm first, and then I walked back to my farm and tacked up Fire, who was already rather anxious.

Fire could hear Belle up the hill, so he was happy to go in that direction.  We had a short but fun ride across the lawn and up the hill.  By the time I had Tanner in hand, Belle was already calling to him. We're over here!  Hurry up!  The grass is delicious!  So much grass!

All good. Until... I had to bring them back home.

Running short of time, I worried first about Belle.  She eats with too much gusto, and this pasture was like unlimited Ben & Jerry's with hot fudge and whipped cream.  She had been eating for three hours. I needed to bring her back first.

By the time I returned, ten minutes later, Fire was completely soaked in the cold sweat of panic, and Tanner was racing at top speed up and down the fence line.  All three horses were screaming.

I brought Fire down next, so he wouldn't stroke out.  At home at last, he trotted with Arabian pageantry in triumph through the pasture.

From the hill, I could hear Tanner trilling.

Belle!!!

Tanner!!!  Where are you???

Belle!!!

Tanner!!!  Get down here right now!!   

I had to pick up our exchange student from school.  I was already late.  Tanner would have to stay where he was for another fifteen minutes.

I felt horrible leaving him there.  Few horse people cogitate from as much acute  empathy as I, which acute empathy I'm told only makes horses crazier.   I reminded myself of this pragmatism over and over as I drove at top speed into town. I used telepathy to assure Tanner that I would come back and had not truly abandoned him.

I am not returning you to your previously solitary life as a horse with only painful memories of a lost herd and the sound of Belle's voice resonating in your ears from an intolerable distance.   

We drove directly to the neighbor's farm.  Tanner was snorting and screaming, all flared nostrils and hot sweat.  I could feel my enormous stress evaporate as I secured him in the halter and led him through the open gate and down the hill.

God forbid, we should anthropomorphise about these dumb creatures.  Let the facts as I've presented them speak for themselves.  Infer what you will.  I, for one, have redoubled my efforts to consider the horses' perspective from a place of empathy.

Our exchange student, by the way, is leaving soon for Brittany, France.  He entered our lives as a stranger, but, sometime over the past ten months, he became a member of the herd.

Of course, we'll miss him, but we'll be busy.  We'll paint the barn.  I will make great strides with Tanner's training as a trail horse. My son has a heavy schedule of enriching summer programs ahead of him.  And Baptiste will return to his real family, in France.  They certainly miss and love him.  Next fall, he will start his first year at university.  He'll be very busy, too.

When someone separates from the herd, humans don't run back and forth along the fence line screaming our heads off. We have the great advantage of keeping ourselves busy.  And of course we are able to communicate complex information with each other that should be enormously comforting, like, Everything's going to be okay.

How much easier it would be if I could explain to Fire and Tanner, Listen, dudes, I'm just taking Belle out for a trail ride.  She'll be back in three hours. 

That would spare them a lot of grief.

But then again, if I said to Belle,  Hey, don't worry!  Tanner is only going to Europe.  He'll return, someday, for a brief visit, probably.  Anyway, you're both very busy with all that hay you have to chew.  

I don't know how that would go over, but I think she might bite me. 


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