by Laura Crum
So the other day I had a revelation. Or a possible revelation. It was my birthday, actually. And my one wish for my birthday was to have my husband and son and our friend/boarder, Wally, help me clean out my barn. The barn was a total mess, crowded with twenty years accumulation of old, broken, useless horse junk. I am not a neat horse housekeeper. The idea of cleaning the barn up had become very daunting to me (there was so much old, moldy junk), but the mess bothered me every single day. So when I was asked what I wanted for my birthday, I quickly scanned through the notions of outings, meals, presents…etc and came up with the one thing that really resonated for me. I wanted a clean barn. So that’s what we did.
I am sure glad I had help, because I never would have made it through the process alone. You would not believe how many rats and mice were hiding in the rotten old bits of tack and the feed bags I forgot to throw out. Not to mention the rusting, broken feeders…etc. There were plenty of black widow spiders, too. But my intrepid helpers were not afraid, and all the junk got cleaned up and hauled away.
My barn is just a pole barn—it was built to store feed and shelter a vehicle—there is a shed in the back that I can turn into a box stall when I need one. All useful tack resides in the horse trailer, because this barn is no place for tack—everything gets dusty in the summer and moldy in the winter. My goal was to get the junk removed and to be able to park the truck inside once more. And this goal was accomplished—as you see below.
The barn cleaning was very satisfying to me, but it didn’t produce the revelation. I already knew that a reasonably tidy barn would feel very good. No, the revelation happened afterward. Because after the barn was nice and tidy (by my admittedly not-very-high standards, anyway), I sat down in my chair in the barnyard, in the shade of an oak tree, and just contemplated things for an hour.
I had already fed the horses lunch and they were puttering around, as horses do. We’d been down there all day working, but not paying much attention to them, so they were resigned to the notion that I wasn’t going to get them out. Thus they ignored me, sitting there quietly in my chair, and I just watched them doing their own things.
This was, when I came to think about it, unusual. My horses tend to notice the moment I approach the barnyard and come to their gates, nickering plaintively. “Me, get me.” The message is plain.
Usually when I go down there I am either feeding, or I get a horse out to turn him loose to graze, or brush him, or ride him. At times, in fact, I avoid going near the barn because I don’t have time (or inclination) to interact with the horses and I feel guilty ignoring their pleas to be got out. So sitting quietly in my chair watching them while they appeared unaware of me—I think they had pretty much forgotten I was even there—was kind of a novelty.
I keep my horses in big corrals (they average 40 feet by 150 feet)—one horse to a corral. They have pasture sheds they can go in and out of at their choosing—there is room for them to run and buck and play—and they do. Every horse has at least one horse that he can touch and play with through the fence—and they all can see each other. I feed them three times a day—a mixed grass/alfalfa—which gives them something to pick at most of the time. And here’s the thing. I often wonder if they are happy.
I think we horse owners have all wondered if our horses are happy. I used to think my horses would be happiest turned out in a big pasture—and then for almost twenty years I did keep horses this way, and I spent a lot of time with them. To my surprise they often looked just as bored as horses in corrals. They grazed when they wanted, yes, but this worked out to be about three main sessions a day, just the way I feed my horses in their corrals. The rest of the time they stood around idly swishing at flies and looking, well, bored.
But on this day, watching my horses stand companionably with their buddies, switching their tails, one hind leg cocked, I saw it differently. Because here I sat in my chair, idly doing nothing, and I’m sure that if anyone was there to see me (which there wasn’t) I might have looked bored. But I wasn’t. I was absolutely content. And thus it finally dawned on me that maybe my horses were perfectly content, too.
Horses sleep on average only two hours a day. So perhaps these long hours of idling, pleasantly relaxed, are what they need, what they crave. Maybe the boredom I’d projected onto them had been only a manifestation of my own restless spirit. I somehow thought they needed to be grazing, or running around, or interacting with each other, or they didn’t “look happy.” But maybe I was wrong about that.
If I was happy, sitting quietly in my chair, doing nothing, maybe they were happy, too. Maybe horse happiness doesn’t look like what I supposed. Maybe a full belly, water to drink, space to move around and run if you want, soft ground to lie on and roll on, and other horses for company is really enough. My horses like attention, and so they lobby for me to get them out when they see me. But in this moment, when they weren’t thinking about me, they looked pretty darn content.
So I’m chewing on this awhile. I’m sure that some of you have contemplated this subject as well…wondering if your horse seemed happy. Any thoughts?