Monday, November 9, 2009

Inter-equine Relationships

The funny things that horses do.
By Terri Rocovich

I am always puzzled when people make the comment that horses are not very smart and even go as far as to say they are stupid. To me, these people have never spent time just observing horses and watching their complex social interaction and interpersonal relationships. I have a fairly small training barn that averages about 12 horses in residence and I love watching the interaction between each of the horses. I am a strong believer in letting a horse be a horse, even if they are a high priced dressage or event horse, they still need to have friends and be part of a herd. Because of this premise, we figure out which horses get along and every horse at my facility, with a few exceptions, has a turn out partner that they can get time to hang out with, graze together and often times play to their heart’s content.

One of my horses is a 20 year old thoroughbred named Pete. Pete is a precocious character whom has a sweet, kind nature but who also has a very high opinion of himself. Pete has had a good life, being the favored son and enjoying much success competitively but Pete has also had very complicated relationships with his fellow equines. When I first purchased Pete back in 1999, he fell madly in love with my mare Carrie. He was obsessed with her and she, being the ultimate equine cougar, exploited his attachment to maintain control and make herself feel younger. When Carrie passed away, Pete suffered through every stage of grieving and would not even consider accepting a relationship with another horse for several years.

Now 4 years later, he has developed an interesting friendship with one of my other horse’s Hank. Hank is a paint/pinto (I always get the definitions confused) who I took in as a rescue 3 years ago. I will tell you more about Hank’s amazing journey in another blog, but he has become both sibling rival and partner in crime to Pete and I think he is helping to keep Pete young. The other morning I got a kick out of watching the two of them taunt each other. Hank has been on a bit of a diet lately (I kind of went a bit overboard on the rescue him nutritionally thing) and he finishes his food before Pete. Their paddocks share a pipe fence (they have stalls with attached paddocks) and Pete, purposely pushes his feeder closer to the fence so Hank can see him slowly finish his food but Pete keeps his hay just far enough way that Hank is not able to grab any through the fence. Hank responded by taking his nose and sliding shut the door to Pete’s stall, essentially shutting the door in Pete’s face. Pete of course took his nose and slid the door open again which Hank in turn shut the door again and turned his butt to Pete’s corral.

Now you tell me that horses don’t think, don’t plan their actions and don’t have all the nuances to their relationships that we have to ours. Pete and Hank at various times compete with each other for my attention, they love each other, they hate each other, and they are each other’s playmates and rivals. They entertain each other by removing the other’s fly mask or bell boots and have become artful at redecorating each other’s blankets in the winter.

They are only one example on the many interesting interactions that happen daily around here. I love watching it all. It is always fascinating watching the changing dynamic when a new horse comes on the property. What kind of funny things do your horses do? Do they have a BFF? A rival? Do they get jealous of each other or a newcomer? Do you think your horse is smart? I know mine are, although we do have a few in the barn who ride the short bus. I’d love to hear your stories. Tell me if your horses play tricks on each other or have lovers quarrels or sibling tiffs. It is all so interesting and entertaining to me, certainly better than any soap opera or reality show that I have ever seen. Maybe that is it. Horse lovers need their own daytime drama – “As the stable turns”, or “All my Foals” or “The Stallion” or “Survivor – Pasture edition” what do you think?


Francesca Prescott said...

Great post Terri, Hank and Pete sound like little kids! Highly entertaining to watch, for sure. Kwintus' stable neighbour is also an older gentleman, although a few years younger than Kwint. When they are put out to graze and play in adjacent paddocks, they tend to get totally stupid and race around, bucking and twisting, as if trying to prove to one another that they're not "old" at all. In fact, often the younger horses grazing in other paddocks will just stand there watching Kwint and his friend showing off in front of each other. I wish he'd give me an extended trot as expressive as the one he gives his buddy!

Kwintus also always knows when he's going to a competition, or even performing a dressage program at home. Plait him and he goes into show mode, all cocky and "let-me-show-you-how-it's-done-young-lady". He even sometimes decides what figures come next during a program!

Yes, definitely smart... and with a great sense of humour!

Anonymous said...

Hank and Pete are so funny, and yes, horses are very far from stupid.

A story about herd dynamics:

My horse has lived at the same boarding barn for about 8 years,where he gets daily turnout in a huge pasture with a variety of other geldings who have come and gone over the years.

When he first moved there, he was low in the herd status, slowly he's worked his way up and now he's King of the Geldings. It's funny to think back how he achieved this. He first gained status when his little brother (who had learned submission from being turned out with the mare herd in his youth) joined the group. Then, my gelding wisely buddied-up to the big Paint who was top horse at the time. The two of them entered into a partnership and plotted all kinds of things together. One example, they were the only geldings who got to schmooze with the mares over the fence.

We often take our dog through the pasture because the back gate leads to a nice trail along the river, and on one of these occasions I got a clue how complex the geldings' plots were. Our youngster Border Collie mix decided it was his destiny to herd horses. After one "achievement" (he herded a horse towards the water trough, the horse was on his way there anyway, but after the horse took a drink our dog ran wagging back to us all flush with success)our dog decided he was ready for more advanced horse herding, and tried to gather them into a group. The proper Border Collie way, no barking, lots of stalking and circling and "eye." Most of the horse herd were actually moving--but the boss Paint took over a spot and didn't move. My gelding trotted to the far end of the herd, waited until the rest of the herd moved along, and slowly started squeezing my dog towards the Paint. The two horses got my dog between them, increasing their speed and ears-back attitude until our dog sped back to us to hide with his tail between his legs. We could actually see those two horses laughing. They pushed together (so much like a high-five!)then went back to grazing.

Poor dog--now that have a bit of land we're eventually going to get a couple goats so he can fulfill his destiny.

Big Paint left the barn, so now my horse is boss of the gelding pasture. All he has to do is raise his head and give "the look" and the other geldings scatter.

Jayke said...

I often read this blog but this is the first time I've been compelled to post, the most interesting herd dynamic I've ever witnessed happened about 5 years ago when I first got my gelding Oliver, the characters involved went something like this:

Sam - King gelding, 20 years old. Quite studly.
Classic - Big boss mare, in love with King Sam, would follow him around wherever he went.
Oliver - 3 years old, absolutely in love with Classic.
Georgie - 2 years old, Oliver's younger half sister.

The view of the pasture from our dining room was great, I would often sit there and simply observe, it really was like a soap opera. The same pattern would happen over and over...

Sam and Classic would be grazing on their own, Oliver would approach Classic, Georgie tagging along behind her big brother. Sam pretty much let Classic handle herself, he knew she was in love with him. He also liked Georgie quite a bit too though.

Classic would pin her ears and rush at Oliver and Georgie, they would scatter. Georgie, not wanting any trouble, would circle around to Sam for protection. But Classic wasn't about to let another mare near King Sam, so Georgie would be chased away from him as well.

Oliver would regroup and begin his approach again, sometimes he would even get close enough to nibble her butt before she turned on him and drove him away.

(Any reference to horses being 'chased' or 'driven away' only refers to three or four steps, not across the pasture)
This sad tale of unrequited love kept up for a winter until Classic's daughter was old enough to be turned out with the bigger horses. Then the herd was split up and a much more harmonious arrangement was reached.

Terri Rocovich said...


Kwintus sounds a lot like Pete. Just this morning I was giving one of my working students on Pete and he decided he was 2 instead of 20 and went airborne. Luckily Brittany stayed in the saddle and Pete was completely un-apologetic. When he was still competing, the minute the braids went in, he was ready for his audience. And I agree, too bad we can't just video their movements in the pasture and show those to the judges.

Enjay said...

My pony Cat was gelded as a 4yo, after having been bred for two seasons. I don't know if being a breeding stallion effected his body chemistry permanently or not but he had issues with stallions. We boarded at a place that had two stallions in their barn that they turned out with the geldings on a rotating schedule.
The junior stallion conceded his superiority after a thorough trouncing but the senior stallion (named Owl) and he went round and round the entire time Owl was out, every time, the whole five years we were there. I was worried because Cat was 56" and Owl was 16.1h and went after him with a vengeance. Cat would evade him, dancing around like a boxer, then wheel and slam Owl with both heels and take off. He would run in a tight circle that his shorter stride ate up and Owl would find himself scrambling around, swinging all over the place, perpetually off kilter and generally getting in his own way. Cat would widen the circle, let him catch up, reach over, nip his leg out from under him then put on the speed and leave him behind, often throwing his heels in his face for good measure. He was obviously having a ball, but I really worried that if Owl got hold of him I'd have a dead pony. This would go on for as long as Owl was up for chasing him, usually a good half hour or more, at which point Owl would pull up and take a breather. They'd usually go for another round, or two, or three, until Owl would finally settle down and have a graze, pointedly ignoring Cat, who would bait him incessantly. Oddly enough Cat was the only gelding Owl had issues with, if he wasn't in the pasture during turn out (and I did try to keep him out when my schedule allowed it) he'd walk out and start grazing without a fuss. I wasn't too keen about the situation but Owl's owner, who was otherwise a sane and sensible horsewoman, felt that they would be fine and that they were playing, albeit "a bit roughly." The BO agreed with her, and as this was the only barn I could get to without having to ask my mom for a ride I was stuck.
They went on like that for a couple of months, no one ever getting hurt aside from a few kick marks on Owl, until that winter when Cat developed sepsis from an abscess in his scrotum. He had several courses of heavy duty antibiotics but it took him a long time to recover. I kept him on stall rest as long as I could, even after the vet cleared him to go back to the pasture, because he just wasn't his sassy self and I was afraid Owl would tear him to pieces, but eventually I had to put him back out in the pasture because we couldn't afford a stall any more. I remember the first time Owl was turned out after that, he came charging full bore at Cat, teeth bared and ears laid flat, and Cat just turned his shoulder to him and stood there. He didn't even raise his head. I was ready to jump the fence and fend him off because I thought he was going to kill him but he didn't. I don't think I've ever seen a horse pull himself up quite like Owl did, but he managed to avoid crashing into him, scrambled back, then sniffed Cat, who ignored him the whole time. Owl baited him for a while but Cat just ignored him and stood there looking pretty dull. Long story short(er) Cat had another abscess, then surgery to resolve it. After that he had an uneventful recovery. When Owl was next turned out with him Cat was grazing across the field and flicked an ear at him but didn't come charging at him like he normally did. Owl walked up to him, Cat didn't react at all, Owl cropped a little grass near him then went in for a sniff and Cat nailed him and took off running, tail flagging and totally laughing at the dumb stallion charging after him. They were back at it, bared teeth, pinned ears, squeals and all.

Enjay said...

After many more months observing them I grew to realize that they were actually playing but at the time I was 14 and stallions were scary so I couldn't really see Owl, I could only see the things that frightened me. I do think that the hours of watching them, trying to figure out what everyone else saw that made them think that this was safe and playful helped me learn to be more observant, less afraid, and to tumble things around until they make sense, which has stood me in good stead over the years. Yet another life lesson learned from a horse :) Well, anyway, that's my favorite horse interaction story.

Terri Rocovich said...

Jayke and Anounymous

I loved hearing about your herd dynamics. Isn't it amazing! And when you add in the interaction with other family members like dogs, cats and goats it really could be material for a TV drama. It also reminds be of the role playing and maneuvering that happens in the coporate office environment that I used to work in.

Anounymous gelding (the new hire)waits for the paint (the big boss)to retire or get fired so he can move up the corporate ladder.

Or Jayke's horses could be a high school drama of young boy (taunted by younger sister)has a crush on beautiful teacher (who is secretly in love with the principal)until a new girl comes to school. Sound familiar?

I had a goat years ago as a companion for my aging partially blind mare, and he used to get into the mix and stir up trouble just because he could and then run gleefully away, very proud of the temporary chaos left in his wake. This is why I think that people who think of animals as dumb and somehow less valuable than human life are the most ignorant and sad kind of creature because they have obviously never taken the time or stepped out of themselves long enough to see social behaviour that is equal to our crazy human drama. With one exception - Animals don't start wars or bomb or shoot each other.

Terri Rocovich said...


Loved hearing about Cat's tale and I am glad he fully recovered from his infection. You are so right about gaining life lessons from our horses. Even at the ripe old age of 50 I learn something from my horses every day, even if it is just the lesson of recieving and giving love.

You were right though to have concerns because some horses, just like some people, often times cross the line into inappropriate behavour. Just this past Sunday, a client called me in a panic because 2 of the horses boarded in their pasture got into it over some food and one the horses ended up with a fractured hock. (I am not sure what the prognosis of this horse is.) The horse that inflicted the injury had hind shoes on which can be lethal weapons if the horse does not temper it's response. That is why, since most of our show horses need shoes all the way arond, we either make sure that horses will get along or they get turned out solo. Keep your good instincts and watch those horses!

Laura Crum said...

Terri--I typed a long comment about my horse Sunny and his odd dominance issues with other horses--and humans--and blogger ate it. Having just typed my own post, I don't have the energy to retype the lengthy comment. But I tried. Sometimes this internet stuff is frustrating(!)

I'm glad you pointed out that these pasture antics can be dangerous. I have known many horses to get seriously injured and even permanently crippled and/or put down, due to being kicked by a shod horse. I do not turn my horses out together when they are wearing hind shoes. Call me parnoid, but I've seen too many injuries. The vet who advises me on my equine vet mystery series, had described so many wrecks due to this cause (latest being pony who was kicked in the forehead by longtime companion horse who was just playing--the pony died instantly) that I'm just not comfortable turning any horses out with others if they have back shoes.