by Laura Crum
I am happy that Gunner, my 33 year old horse, feels good these days. But lately it’s been sort of a problem. The old boy wants to charge around, bucking and spinning and galloping up and down his pen at the drop of a hat. He especially likes to do this when I remove the neighbor horse from his pen. Gunner isn’t really worried—and there’s a horse on the other side of him. It’s just a good excuse to pitch a fit.
The thing is, Gunner was never known for being sensible. A trooper yes, no quit in him. Friendly, kind, cooperative, playful…check. A heck of an athlete, yes. A tremendous amount of cow, super trainable…all of the above. But, sensible, no. My Sunny horse is sensible. Gunner is and always was the sort of horse who saw horse eating monsters everywhere. I believe the new term is a “sensitive, reactive” horse. I just called him a big spook. Also a goofball.
So its not really surprising that Gunner, at the advanced age of 33, will choose to gallop madly down his sloping pen, slide to a stop at the bottom, spin round and race to the top, neighing wildly. Lather, rinse, repeat. All because the neighbor horse is out of his pen, grazing. Even though Gunner can, of course, see his buddy. He can also see the other horses. He just ain’t sensible. He LIKES getting all worked up.
I watch these shenanigans, holding my breath. It’s fun to see that Gunner can still move so well when he wants to. But I fear these downhill charges will eventually result in the old, arthritic horse piling it up. I picture him breaking his leg or his neck, and yep, I go fetch his buddy and put the horse back in his corral. That’s how big a wimp I am.
On the other hand, it’s not fair to Plumber, the buddy, if he never gets out. To my chagrin, I find that horses are very aware if they didn’t get their “turn.” The accusing stares and plaintive nickers that follow me when one horse does not get his turn out time speak louder than words. Plumber is a very people oriented horse and he lets me know he wants his fair share of the attention and grazing. So a week or so ago I turned Plumber out for awhile, and watched Gunner.
It had just rained and the ground was slick. I had my misgivings. But I had not given Plumber a turn out in a couple of days. What’s a good horse owner to do?
For awhile Gunner seemed OK. He could see Plumber grazing nearby. But then Plumber moved a little ways away, and the long unhappy neighs began coming from Gunner. He started trotting up and down the top end of his corral, sliding with every footfall. Shit, I thought. It’s too slippery.
I caught Plumber and hustled back with him. But before I could get there, Gunner loped across the pen, slid to a stop, slipped, went down, and piled it up on the ground. He thrashed on his side, and seemed unable to get up, and my heart went to my throat. I will admit that I screamed, “Gunner!” like a teenage girl. I thought he had broken something.
I have seen horses break their legs; I have seen them break their necks. I know what can happen. For that moment while my old horse thrashed on the ground, all these horrible scenarios flashed through my mind. And then Gunner got his legs under him and heaved himself to his feet. He limped off, but he was clearly not broken.
I put the reluctant Plumber back in his pen and kept watching Gunner, who moved around and pretty soon walked out of his limp. He was Ok then. But my problem was bigger than ever.
Because now I know that I am risking Gunner getting hurt if I turn Plumber out. And I just don’t want the old boy to die because I took the risk.
What to do? I had the bright idea I might turn Gunner and Plumber out together. I don’t usually do this because my property is 1) Not perimeter fenced the whole way around, and 2) Full of places (like by the house or inside the shop or haybarn) where the horses COULD go, but I don’t want them to. There is good grazing on the verges of the riding ring, along the driveway, and in the barnyard area, and the horses usually stay where they belong. I shut (and lock) the front gate, and the back of the property (not fenced) is very steep and brushy and no horse has ever tried to escape that way (in twenty years). But…
As a safety precaution, I turn the horses loose one at a time. That way they don’t tend to run and play and get in trouble, and I’m sure that the loose horse will not leave the others. However, I decided to try Plumber (24) and Gunner (33) loose together. Surely two old horses could graze peacefully side by side in the sunshine. Right?
Bad idea. The very first thing they did was start farting around. Nipping each other, squealing, trotting off together, charging up the hill to the riding ring like a little cavalry brigade. Not at all what I had in mind. They just wouldn’t settle down and graze. They were having too much fun. Never mind that they can play around and nip each other in their side-by-side corrals and this was their one chance to graze on green grass. Nope, they had to go crashing about. And then the old farts wouldn’t let me catch them. Again, having too much fun. I did eventually get them caught and put away…and that was the last time I tried that.
So now I feel kind of stuck. I turn Henry out.
I turn Sunny out.
I turn Gunner out.
And then I catch Plumber and hand graze him, keeping him close to the corrals so that Gunner doesn’t freak out. It’s a solution, but not an ideal one. Plumber would prefer to be free, and I would prefer not to babysit him. But I worry about the downside. What would you do?