Saturday, November 20, 2010

Twister Speaks--For the First Time

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?


Mikey said...

I think he learned from watching the others, and finally trusts you enough to try to "speak" to you. It'll be even better now that he knows you get it :) I like to think of it as "building better relationships".

Mrs. Mom said...

First, your story gave me (happy!) goose bumps. Go Twister, and AMEN Laura for understanding him!!

I don't have the answer to whether or not they can think and reason more than we give them credit for--- all I can say on that matter is over the years, I've sure seen some things I can't begin to explain.

Give the crew a rub from me!

Anonymous said...

Lovely story! I'll bet they're doing these things all the time if we just take the time to notice, which you did!

yatima said...

I ride a couple of times a week at a fancy show barn. I switch around my rides a lot, but I'd been riding one particular black Thoroughbred for a couple of weeks, and we'd been having fun. The other week I went to saddle him up. He'd just finished his dinner, and when he saw me he nickered and walked over to stick his head in the halter. He couldn't have been much clearer in saying "Hi there! Let's go!"

Anonymous said...

I think that if a smart horse observes that you are going to be responsive, they'll make the effort to communicate. Mocha and I do this all the time; when she's eager to get out and start working she'll nicker (she has a distinctive high little voice) to encourage me to hurry up!

For me, it's been the horse that observes that humans have straight-on gaze, attempts to engage that straight-on gaze by uncharacteristically looking straight at the human, and then making their request. It's very noticable when they decide to start trying to communicate like this.

Funder said...

For once, I have to disagree with Kate - I think some horses, especially the ones with rougher or unthoughtful handling in their past, don't try to talk for a while. I think after they relax and realize that the human really is paying attention, then they might talk. But why try to communicate if the humans never listen?

That's a wonderful story :) Made me smile!

Laura Crum said...

Thanks all, for your insights.
All my horses behave slightly differently on this "communication" issue, so I've learned not to generalize too much. From the first day I got him, Sunny looked right at me and clearly wanted to engage. I hadn't owned him very long when he began to nicker to me, first at feeding time, then at other times. Henry, on the other hand, looks at me and nickers went he wants to be fed, but seldom otherwise (Henry is a chowhound). That's why I was so tickled when he asked me for a drink the other day. Plumber nickers at me constantly (I've owned this horse since he was three and I trained him). Tied in a row of horses, including his pasture mates, he will nicker to me if I walk away, or when I come back. Just, "Hey, where you going?" And "Glad you're back." It was almost embarrasing how much he did this when I hauled him to ropings. Here I am, walking back from the snack shack and my horse is nickering like crazy, "Oh, there you are; where did you go?" People would stare at him like, what's wrong with that horse? Anyway, it tickled me that Twister finally "spoke".

dunslidin said...

I know this happens, since my gelding talks to me all the time. I was at a Richard Caldwell clinic and we had been going all day. He had been in his stall over the lunch break but it was getting late in the afternoon and was warm with a strong wind from the south blowing on us. Waiting for my turn to ride for Richard my gelding turned around to me, looked me in the eye and smacked his lips and showed me his tongue. I said to the horse trainer next to me, whoops the Codester is really thirsty, time for a drinkypoo. Left the group and took him to his stall for a drink, which he drained his bucket and let me ride back to the group and get ready for our ride. The trainer guy was laughing at me and said what was that all about? I told him I had raised Cody from a baby and he tells me what will help him all the time since I've been fulfilling his needs for 11 years. He didn't believe me but I know that Cody can communicate and even rolls his eyes if I don't get it quick enough. Had a great time at the clinic and Cody was a superstar as always. Oh those smart, good geldings!