by Laura Crum
Last month I wrote a post about my son’s horse, Henry, asking me for a drink of water. I thought this was pretty cool, and I explain why in the post (“Henry Speaks”—October). But a few days ago I was treated to an even more amazing demonstration of communication from a horse. Or at least it amazed me. Let me know what you think.
I have four horses on my place, one of which is Twister—a fourteen year old gray gelding who belongs to my friend Wally. Twister is Wally’s team roping horse; Wally takes him to practice ropings and competitions several days a week on average. I don’t ride or handle Twister much, but he has lived here with me for seven years, and I feed him every day and help with his care as needed. I encouraged Wally to buy him as a very green six year old horse, and helped him with the training as much as I could (I had a nursing baby at the time). So I know Twister well.
Twister didn’t have a good start. He was raised on a ranch in the Dakotas and was traded to a horse trader as an unbroken four year old as a part of a deal for a horse trailer. This trader sent him to a ranch cowboy to be started and by all accounts the cowboy did not care for this sensitive, hot colt, who is mostly running bred QH. After sixty days with the cowboy, the horse trader sent Twister to a young team roper who trained horses on the side with the instructions to make the horse into a “ninety day wonder”. In other words, turn this extremely green five year old into a team roping horse in three months.
The young roper complied. It wasn’t pretty. Apparently Twister became so frazzled he repeatedly tried to jump out of the round pen. The roper’s solution? He had his help wait on the other side of the fence with a shovel and beat Twister on the head when he tried to jump out. Twister still has scars on his face and neck from this treatment.
When Wally and I first saw Twister, my uncle had bought the horse from the horse trader. Twister was six years old, and you could rope and turn a steer on him. He was honest and tried hard. He was also very flightly and ignorant as hell.
Twister did not know how to give his head (at all) or hold the lope, or take a lead, or pretty much anything. He’d been “cowboyed” into the very intense job of team roping horse and he had no “foundation” whatsoever. He was also pretty darn standoffish and leery of people (understandably).
Wally bought Twister and taught him to be a reasonably well broke horse and a darn good competitive team roping horse, as well as a fine trail horse. I’ve blogged about Twister’s story before, so I won’t go into detail here. But Twister has been treated kindly and fairly all the years he’s been with us and though he still retains some of the mannerisms of a “ranch broke” horse, its apparent that he trusts us and is fond of us. But he never nickered.
I’m not sure why. All the other horses here nicker at me when I come to feed. Twister never did. Just stood by his feeder and pawed the ground. The other horses nicker to me and Wally all the time. Just talking to us. Not Twister. He never spoke.
And then, the other day I got Sunny and Henry out for my son and I to ride. When we were done, I turned them loose to graze, as I usually do. After I caught them and put them away, I turned my retired horse, Plumber, loose to graze for awhile—again, as I usually do. I don’t normally turn Twister out. My property is fenced on three sides, on the fourth side the barrier is just steep brushy hills. No horse has ever attempted to leave that way, but I’m still careful. I turn the horses loose one at a time and I never do it unless I’m here. I check every so often to make sure the loose horse is visible. My three horses are very sedate and have never given me any problems with this system. Twister is a much more flighty individual, and, of course, he is not my horse, so I am wary of taking any chances with him. Wally hand grazes him from time to time but does not turn him loose.
Anyway, I eventually caught Plumber and put him away—and then I spent a few minutes filling the water trough that Plumber and Twister share. Twister approached me from his side of the corral fence…and he nickered. Very softly, but several times.
I am ashamed to admit that I didn’t even notice…at first. The other horses nicker at me all the time, I was thinking of something else, I paid very little attention.
“What do you want?” I said idly to Twister, and offered to rub his neck. Twister is a horse who likes to be petted, and I guess, if I thought anything, I thought he wanted me to rub on him. But Twister moved off and stood by his corral gate. Then he came back to me and nickered softly.
And I got it. Twister was talking to me. He was, for the first time ever, nickering at a person, and he was trying to convey a very clear message. “You let the other horses out to graze. Now its my turn.”
“You want me to let you out to eat, don’t you?” I said. And I stared at the horse in amazement. Because I wasn’t raised to assume that horses think like this. (See my post, “Henry Speaks.”)
Twister had observed me letting the others out to graze many times, he’d observed the other horses nickering at me and asking for their “turn” (which they do). Somehow he had put all this together and, though he had never nickered at either me or Wally before, he was attempting to tell me he wanted a turn, too.
Well, of course I had to get him out. If nothing else, to show him I understood what he was trying to say. He met me at the gate and I hand grazed him for a good long while. Without Wally’s permission, I wasn’t game to turn him loose. But Twister got his “turn”.
And now I wonder. Do horses think in ways like this all the time and did I never notice? Or do my horses try to talk to me because they’ve learned to trust me? Or do I simply read horses better than I used to? Why did Twister finally “speak”? Any thoughts?