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?
As social animals our horses REALLY like going to a "new" place and be able to interact completely with each other.
We string up a temporary hot wire around their "new home", and let 'em rip.
We still have to hold our breath, but they have a ball.
Bill--I hear you. I have to say, I honestly don't agree with that practice. I mean its fine for others to do, but I have known too many horses (not mine) to get seriously hurt. I have often turned my horses out together for long periods of time in a big pasture as a settled herd, but occasional turnout as group, where the horses squabble over dominance and rip around, has resulted in two broken legs (and subsequent euthanasia), and two horses seriously damaged and one dead (by being run through a fence)--and this is just among close friends of mine. My horses do rip around together in their big corrals and play "bite face" over the fence, but unless I am turning them out in a big field for a long period of time, I prefer to reduce the risk of serious injury by not turning them loose as a group. Let alone the other reasons I mentioned in the post.
Makes good sense. Ours are always together in their corral, so there are no herd dominance issues with them.
I agree, Bill. If the horses are always together it works fine. The wrecks I knew came from turning horses out together who were usually in stalls or small separate pens. I can't keep mine in one big dry lot--the old horses need special feed and I don't want them pushed around. I kept Henry and Sunny together for awhile, but I got tired of seeing bite marks on Sunny and I've just known too many horses to be seriously hurt due to being kicked. So I compromise by having them in big corrals where they can interact as a herd...but not kick each other or steal each other's food. No doubt your mustangs are more sensible.
How about a smallish enclosure made of moveable fence panels - like round pen sized - that you could move from place to place on the grass for them to graze together in? It'd be some work but that might solve the problem.
Why don't you just tie Gunner up for the couple hours that Plumber is out and about? I know that Gunner - as a retired rope horse - would be prefectly content standing tied to a tree or horse trailer. Heck he might even think that he was going to have to go to work and settle right down. :)
ps... Henry looks fantastic! Looks like a younster. :)
My idea is to also tie him up while plumber is out! I see someone else already said that. You mentioned that he is usually fine at first and then started to get hotter and hotter? Maybe if you tie him up once he starts trotting, or whatever other trigger you might choose, I bet he would figure it out pretty quickly that if he gets hot he has to go stand elsewhere!
Kate--I actually have done what you suggest--but I only have enough small portable panels to make a one horse sized pen. And uhmm, I think I'm too lazy for this approach(!) Its a bit of work, as you say.
horsegenes--I hate to admit this, but Gunner is spoiled. Remember when I said he was a goofball? Well, I wasn't kidding. Though yes, he has been hauled a LOT, and tied a LOT, he hasn't had to do this in many years, and he was never very good tied up. He pawed; he fidgeted. In his later years he became amazingly good at untying himself. He could even untie a bowline. And now that he is old, spoiled, cannot see or hear well, and somewhat dingy, I do not even want to think about the fit he would pitch if I tied him up.
Thanks for the kind words about Henry. He is doing great. And he ties up perfectly...as does Sunny. Not all my horses are spoiled (!)
Marissa--Thanks for the suggestion. What I actually did yesterday was sort of the opposite. I turned Plumber loose while Gunner was standing calmly next to Henry and I was able to leave Plumber out for half an hour before he moved far enough away that Gunner got upset. I'm not sure whether I'm getting Gunner used to Plumber being out, or training Gunner that when he gets upset I put Plumber away. Hopefully the former.
Boy I can sure relate to this post. There was a time when all my horses could live in one pasture. Danny was the boss and that was it. Danny is older (25 or so) and has stringhalt. He is handicapped but was here first and was already in the leadership rule. Once Killian came, and then the mare started cycling, all that changed. Danny can not fight back and it turned into a bully-fest. Now Killian is the leader, and I cannot let him and Danny in the same pasture. I spent a good amount of time playing musical horses because I did not have enough pens to give each one their own.
Now that I do I still can only let 2 out a day.
But I will tell you something I did that worked for me. I wanted to get the mare away from Killian, so I started letting her out with Danny again. But I had to do it slowly starting with 15 min a day, and always supervised. Then I went to 30 min, then an hour, then a few hours. But I was always home. Eventually I was able to leave and not worry. But initially there were a few times where I had to intervene with some sort of food(treats or grain) to get their minds off of play time and back onto graze time. By introducing them back together slowly it helped "the new" wear off without anyone getting hurt.
Now let me also say I tried this with Danny and Killian and it back fired. The minute I wasn't watching it was the fight for dominance again, and Danny got cut up pretty badly. So if one horse is dominant and the other doesn't care, this slow introduction seems to be helpful. But if Gunner and Plumber are both dominant horses then it probably won't work.
I don't know if this will be helpful to you, but maybe it will.
Cindy D--Thank you. Plumber would be dominant over Gunner, no question. Every horse is. And your approach makes sense. But the truth is I really don't want to turn horses out together here. The property is not completely fenced, and there are many places I don't want the horses to go. If I turn them loose one at a time (while I am home and the gate is shut), they can each have an hour or two of peaceful grazing. Once they start wandering rather than eating, I put them back in their corral and get the next one out. I think my goal is going to be to accustom Gunner to Plumber being out, such that my turnout routine just becomes the norm. Crossing my fingers.
Alternate handgrazing them? Both of them out, one is on a long line? The next day, do the opposite? That way you have some measure of control? Goofy horses.
Karen--Those are both good ideas. Thank you!
Does it make a difference if you switch up the order? Gunner out first of the 4, maybe? Or turn Gunner out, then bring Plumber out to hand graze right away, and then switch them after a few minutes do Plumber gets free time and you can control Gunner's antics? Similar to what KarenTX said. I agree, Plumber should not have to give up his grazing just because Gunner is a goofball. Or, does it help to put Sunny in Plumber's pen when P is out, instead of leaving it empty? Swap G into P's empty pen? Maybe giving G a new area or neighbor will distract him.
BetC--Those are all good ideas. So far what seems to be working (crossing my fingers) is turning Plumber out when Gunner is relaxed and standing by Henry (his other neighbor). Its a rare day when I have time to get everybody turned out, so I just try to be fair. Today we rode Sunny and Henry and then turned them out when done riding, and I may not get to the two older horses. But tomorrow it will be their turn. But I agree, I am determined to be sure that all horses get a chance to roam around and graze.
i think teaching writing to uninterested and hormonal 18-year- olds is easier!
Alison--Yeah, my old horse reminds me of a goofy teenager--he hasn't got much sense. And yet I saw a chart the other day that asserted that in human years Gunner would be 95. Goofiest 95 year old on the planet (!)
I suspect that Ozzy at 33 will be a lot like this.
We call those "high flight index" horses...and Hana is one.
Now that she lives at Fish Creek Farm (10 miles from Haiku Farm), it's not such a problem, but if she and Fiddle are paddocked together for even a few hours (at an endurance ride, for example), Hana reverts to flying roo-roos whenever Fee leaves camp without her. It's exasperating.
Our friend Ryan offered one solution:
*Hana is in her (secure small metal corral) panels.
*An alert human is stationed nearby on a lawnchair with a big pile of little rocks.
*Whenever Hana lifts her head to start being a nitwit, the human flings a rock *at the metal panels.*
*The rock makes a lovely ringing #ping# sound, and Hana's attention is diverted for a moment, and she stands still to look for the ping.
* If she returns to bad behavior, another rock is pinged at the panel.
It's amazingly simple, and it does require a person to be nearby---but it doesn't have to be a huge adult person. A young person with a long attention span can do it just as easily.
Fortunately for us, Hana gives up within 5 minutes of Fiddle's disappearance into the Horrible World. Hana can be kind of a PITA, but we love her anyhow.
Dom--Ozzy very much reminds me of Gunner--Gunner plays with things the way Ozzy does and is/was super trainable and very people oriented. But a big spook and a goofball.
Aarene--Now that is a good and interesting idea. I'm not sure if it wouldn't freak Gunner out more at his age...I'm pretty sure that along with hearing and vision loss, he has some degree of old horse dementia, which I have seen in the other 30 plus year old horses I have had. Also I'd need to have him in a small pen for it to work, I think. If he were younger, I'd try it. But if he were younger, I'd let him charge around his big pen as much as he wanted until he got tired of it. Its the fact that he's thirty-three and correspondingly peggy and arthritic--but quite willing to run hard...etc, that has me worried.
Yeah, good point. Aren't interesting horses...INTERESTING?
Horses are interesting...that's it in a nutshell. Sometimes delightful, sometimes frustrating, even both at once. But always interesting. I'd never be without them, and I think most that comment here feel the same way.
Your old horse sounds as spoiled and special as mine! :P
To me, it sounds like if everyone is going to get their fair turn (or more), at least one horse will need to be hand-grazed. If that is the case, my suggestion is that instead of hand-grazing Plumber near the corrals, you hand-graze Gunner. So give everyone their own turn-out time, but when Plumber is out, hand-graze Gunner at the same time.
That way Gunner and Plumber both get their own turn-out time. But whilst Plumber is out, you have Gunner in-hand so you can keep him in sight of Plumber. Plus, you can gradually try to get Gunner used to more distance from Plumber. And Gunner won't be able to tear around in the corral or loose - you'll already be right next to him if he starts getting upset. Depending on what you'd like, if he won't settle and graze, you can either walk towards Plumber until he can see him, or just take him for an active walk to get his mind on other things. Also, you could see whether Gunner is more settled being turned-out first, or hand-grazed first.
I would do this because this suggestion would mean that you can spend time with Gunner too! (I love hanging out with my spoiled pony!)
One Hind Resting--You know, I think that is the best idea yet. I will certainly try it. I do enjoy hand grazing my old boy, because I know my time with him is limited and I'm never sure if he won't do something stupid--as he really doesn't hear or see too well. Thank you for the idea!
No problems, Laura, I'm glad you like the idea! :D I like spending time with my spoilt pony too - he's still rideable, but when I couldn't ride for a while (fractured my tail bone coming off a friend's horse) I would talk him for a walk just because I enjoyed walking with him. Enjoy your lovely old horse! :)
As a human, I would prefer going riding falling off and breaking my neck to a slow death from cancer. I have a suspicion that my horses feel the same way. He is 33. Let him play. He had a good life. If something happens and you have to call the vet for that last shot, he went out having a ball and you are there to see that he doesn't suffer.
Anon--Gunner can and does "play" all the time in his corral. However, when he gets all worked up because his neighbor has been taken out of the next door corral, Gunner is NOT playing. He's upset. So no, I wouldn't feel as if I had let him go out in a blaze of glory. More as if I had let him go out in distress. But I appreciate hearing your thoughts.
Post a Comment