Monday, May 11, 2009

Burt, the Sometimes Bad Horse

By Laura Crum

Janet posted last week about the “bad horses” that ran her down in the frenzy of feeding agression. She found a solution that worked. This reminded me of my horse Burt, who I posted about in “Farewell To A Friend” (June 08). Burt is gone now, but he lived to be 35, and he still had issues around feeding agression right up until the very end. Obviously, I failed to train it out of him. I thought I’d post his story here and see if any of you had any insights. I still wonder if there was something I should have done differently.

I bought Burt as a five-year-old with thirty days on him. I had never ridden him or handled him. I bought him because I liked his looks. Burt turned out to be a gentle, cooperative horse. His only big fault as a riding horse was the tendency to jig. Burt had a lot of go. But he was willing, and had no buck, very little spook, was easy to control. I made a nice all around cowhorse out of him. I went to work on a northern California commercial cattle ranch and took him with me. And it was at this point I discovered another big hole in him.

Previously, since I was in college at the time, I had kept him in a boarding stable where someone else fed. On the ranch, I kept Burt in a large pen, maybe forty by one hundred, behind my house. There was a big wooden feeder in the middle of the pen. Every morning and evening I carried Burt’s hay out to the feeder. And Burt zoomed around me, bucking and kicking. He did not kick at me, or run at me directly, but he came way too close. He was not, in a word, respecting my space. I set out to teach him some manners.

I knew how to deal with aggressive horses. When I was a teenager, I kept my horse in a corral down the road, along with a couple of neighbor girls. One of these girls had a gelding named Amigo who had learned to be very agressive when someone came to catch him. He would run at you, try to kick you…etc. The girl was afraid of him and this made things worse. He started coming after me when I walked out to catch my horse. At fifteen, I had no clue how to deal with this.

I told my uncle, who was a tough old cowboy, and he came up to sort Amigo out. We walked in the pen and Amigo came after us. My uncle had chosen a two by four from the fencing pile as we walked through the gate. He told me to get behind him. He let Amigo run right up to him and decked the horse across the jaw with the board. He did not tap him. Amigo staggered back and looked at my uncle. My uncle decked him again. Amigo wheeled to run away and got whacked one more time. My uncle told me to carry a whip or a stout stick when I walked in the corral and hit the horse if he came near me. Amigo was never a problem again.

I figured I knew just how to deal with Burt. When I brought his hay out the next morning, I carried a stock whip with me. I walked in the pen, set the hay down, and proceeded to go after Burt with the whip. Well, I whacked him a few times in the front legs as hard as I could and he dashed away. But he kept coming back and running wildly around me. I wanted to drive him off so he stood in the corner, and I kept after it. Eventually I got him in the corner, but he was just beside himself. I was pretty sure if I got after him any more he’d try to jump out or go through the fence. So, I quit. Burt seemed backed off. I fed him. He did not run near me, but he did dash up to get his food. Hmmm, I thought. I didn’t quite get what I wanted.

This went on for weeks. I could drive Burt off but I couldn’t get him to stand quiet and wait. I could stand there for ages (as much time as I had) and he still dashed around. He did not run up to me aggressively. But he didn’t stand still. If I cornered him he gave every indication that he would crash the fence. Bear in my mind, this was a horse that I also failed to cure of jigging. I could see that Burt’s “aggression” at feeding time wasn’t exactly agression. It was an extension of the same nervous, anxious energy that made him prance. When Burt was put in a herd of horses, he was bottom man on the totem pole. His feeding agression was more feeding anxiety. “Am I gonna get any food. I’m so worried…etc.”

However, whatever the reason, if he went flying right by me, kicking up his heels and kicked me in the head, it wasn’t going to matter much why he did it. I kept after it with the whip, but I really wasn’t getting anywhere. I was just making Burt more agitated. He kept his distance better, anyway.

I almost convinced myself I didn’t have a problem. I wasn’t the least bit scared of Burt. I kept my eye on him when I fed him, but in all other ways he was completely gentle. Days when I had a little extra time, I would refuse to deliver his feed until he stood still, but it didn't seem to really sink in. Burt was never the sharpest knife in the drawer. Anyway, I convinced myself it wasn’t that big of a deal.

Until the day I had Burt in the main corrals down at the ranch and the owner walked through Burt’s pen with a flake of hay for another horse. Hungry Burt went zooming by, kicking up his heels, and missed the ranch owner’s head by inches. Now the ranch owner was clueless. He didn’t know squat about horses. He hardly realized what had happened. Even as I leaped into the corral to fend Burt off, the owner ignored the horse, saying over his shoulder to me, “He’s gentle, isn’t he?”

“Uhmm, yeah,” I said. “Except at feeding time.”

I definitely had a problem.

To make a long story short, I never cured Burt. I usually keep my horses in pens where I can feed from outside the fence (so much more pleasant in the winter) and Burt was no problem under those circumstances. But when I lent Burt to a ranch family for their teen age girls to team pen, barrel race and goat tie on him, I warned them about the feeding agression. The parents were real horse people, they’d worked on ranches all their lives. The husband had gone to the NFR as a saddle bronc rider. He was plenty tough. And plenty savvy. He looked at my gentle gelding and shrugged. No, really, I said, you have to watch him if you go in the pen to feed him.

I called a month later to ask how Burt was doing. Great. But oh yeah, Bill, the husband, had walked in the pen to feed the horse and Burt had missed his head by inches.

“What did Bill do?” I asked, hoping that this tough cowboy would cure my horse.

“Nothing. But he keeps an eye on him now.”

Well, drat. Score: Burt: 2 Horse Owners: 0

Eventually I lent Burt to a nice woman who wanted to trail ride. I warned her about the feeding agression. She said she had a pen with a big feeder by the fence so it wouldn’t be a problem. This woman wasn’t really a horseperson. But Burt was, as I said, in most ways a gentle, safe horse, and she got along fine with him. Unfortunately, Burt learned to turn over the heavy feeder. She would arrive to feed him and find it upside down.

Well, this gal may not have been a horseperson, but she was smart. And had time on her hands. She stood by the fence with Burt’s feed and waited. Burt fussed and dithered, frantic to eat. He never stood still, but eventually (it took about half an hour) in his fussing, he turned the feeder back right side up. She put the hay in it.

You can guess the rest. The next night it took half the time. This gal managed to turn Burt’s feeding frenzy into a useful tool. Soon Burt would smartly put his feeder into position as soon as she appeared. Score 1 for the horse owners.

I eventually took Burt back as an old horse and retired him. He still had plenty of vim and vigor and it really showed at feeding time. I have to admit it brought a smile to my face to see my thirty years plus gelding gallop in for his equine senior. And yeah, I still had to fend him off. In fact at thirty-five years of age, when I jerked his feed away to remove a large clump (Burt was prone to choking), the old goat actually struck with a front foot. Came nowhere near me, but still.

No, I didn’t beat him. I stared at my bright-eyed old horse in exasperation and told him not to be stupid. And then I gave him his feed back. Obviously I never cured him of the feeding agression. Maybe I just didn’t try hard enough. But to the end of his life, Burt’s vivid, energetic personality never failed to bring a smile to my face. And it was that same energy that took him to thirty-five in good health, and made him jig, and caused him to be such an ass at feeding time.

I’m curious now if anybody has any ideas on what might have worked on such a horse. More persistance with the whip? Not feeding him until he stood quietly and respectfully? Clearly I failed with both these approaches, but maybe it was for lack of trying hard enough. Anybody have any other ideas for curing this problem?


mugwump said...

This is interesting, because, like you said, Bert was more anxious than anything.
Another thing I have tried which has worked in the past is I would catch a troublesome horse, tie him, put his feed out and let him go once the horse was quiet.
Of course, there's also the fact you were young at the time.
I know I had problems as a young rider I wouldn't have now, because I read horses better and my timing with discipline is better than when I was a kid.
Annie was a good example. She was almost impossible to worm. She was the worst horse I had to vet in any way.
I know now how to train that stuff out of a horse. But it was a habit I had let become a vice, just because I didn't know how to handle it when I first got her, even though my technique was about the same, I just didn't have the timing I have now.
I guess there's really no way to tell though, since you're all grown up and Bert is gone.

Heidi the Hick said...

Champ wasn't mean about feeding but he was kind of obnoxious.

My dad wasn't thinking any kind of horse whispering crap when he was in the barn. He was just thinking how much he hates rude horses. He'd stand there with his two flakes of hay, just out of reach. Champ would lean against the front of the stall, chewing and pinning his ears. Dad just stood there. Glaring back. I don't even think he bothered saying anything. As soon as that horse's ears came forward he dumped the hay in the trough.

Farmer wisdom? I doubt that'd work on pigs.

Now I ask them to step back before I give them the hay. They're not bad outside either; they hover but they don't get rude about it. I hope we're doing it right.

You old boy sounds like a cool horse. Isn't it funny how we put up with some things, just because the rest of the horse is good?

Laura Crum said...

mugwump and Heidi--I think I might have tried harder with the not feeding until the horse behaved routine now. I might have better timing--maybe. I know with Burt I partly failed because I didn't take it seriously. He annoyed and amused me more than he worried me. And I was young and always in a hurry to get something else done, as you say, Janet. I didn't have much patience in those days. I have a little more now, I think. But I don't have any horses with that exact issue, so don't know if I could do a better job with it.

Leslie said...

I believe there are some habits, vices, etc. horses learn that simply become a part of their personality no matter how we may try to correct them. I'm not saying anyone should give up trying to correct dangerous actions, but sometimes they are what they are, character flaws, at least as I see it.

As intellectual humans we have our own flaws. Our friends and loved ones may try to correct our flaws, we may try at times, but nothing works for very long if the habit/vice is ingrained. We'll go back to the same old habit because somewhere along the way, we found it worked for us on some level or maybe because it's just more comfortable.

Horses, as well as people, will keep doing what seems to be working for them. In Burt's mind, when it came to feeding time, he kept doing what he thought was working for him. At least that's how I'm seeing it. Evidently, feed time was extremely important to Burt and he had learned somewhere in his early life that being aggressive was the way to ensure his belly got full which may have comforted him, at the least satisfied him.

Definitely beneficial if you can catch the habit or vice early on before it becomes one of those character flaws.

Sounds like Burt had a good long life, so, he got other things right along the way.

littledog said...

Pararaph 6: You set the hay down, then went after Burt with the whip until he kept his distance (though he kept running around), then fed him.
I might have kept the hay in my posession and fended him off with the whip until he kept his distance, not requiring him to stand still, just to respect me and my space with the hay ("It's MY hay until I choose to give it to you") then drop the hay and walk away without looking at him.
Of course, more complex if he's turned out with an unruly herd!
Still, what a minor issue with a good guy who was your partner for a long time.

Laura Crum said...

littledog--You've got a good point. In the end, that's what I did. But the problem was the not standing still. Burt continued to zoom around, and to the end of his life, if you didn't watch him, he was capable of zooming too close, kicking up his heels in exuberance, and coming dangerously close to hitting you. You could always drive him off--he wasn't truly agressive. But I never figured out how to get him to stand quietly.

FD said...

I thought about this and realised all the food aggressive horses I've had to deal with were either a) stabled or b) out at pasture and I guess maybe didn't get as hungry for hay as a horse in a pen would be. Normally if I had a horse out in the field to give hard feed to, I'd bring it in. So I can't say as what exactly I'd do, never having had quite this situation to deal with.
I did wonder if having space to zoom about in might have contributed - did he regularly forget to allow for your personal space when he got worked up on other occasions?

I had a horse once that when het up was a total idiot when out in the open - he would flail around on the end of the lead rope, or if loose would fanny around like an idiot galloping back and forth, heedless to where any puny human was. However under saddle, or in a confined space he would just freeze. A helicopter went over us once when I was in his box with him, threading his stud holes (seriously not my idea of good timing) and all he did was quiver like a jelly in a gale force wind.

Jami Davenport said...

wow, really interesting as I have a friend with this issue. She's still not sure how she's going to cure it, if at all.