We have the privilege of working with many horses here at Oak Hill Acres. One thing that surprises people is how horses can be very similar to children. They can be rebellious, defiant, and even give us attitudes. Just because they are animals doesn’t mean that they don’t have bad days. Since they cannot communicate with us verbally, they use other methods to get our attention. I will never forget the first horse that taught me all about communication through behaviors.
Lolli came to us from a couple that felt she needed to retire from racing. She was a sweet horse with a great personality. She was one that I found myself always favoring because of her nature. When it came to visits from the Furrier or veterinarian, Lolli was never a problem. They enjoyed her as much as I did. I never worried about her kicking or being rough with anyone. One day, everything changed.
The Furrier came to fit her for new shoes, and Lolli refused to lift her leg. As the gentleman tried to get her to move, she became agitated and neighed loudly. My first thought was that something was wrong with her foot, or she was in pain. After a visit from the vet, he determined that nothing was wrong with her body. Of course, she may have arthritis, but he thought we might have seen signs before that day if it was so severe.
The strange behaviors continued with Lolli. I was concerned and didn’t know what to do to help her. She wouldn’t let me tighten her bridle, didn’t want me to pet her. She also became aloof. Being somewhat new to such behaviors, I consulted a friend who is an expert with equines. He told me that it was possible Lolli was upset about something and trying to tell me by misbehaving. He likened her behavior to that of a two-year-old throwing a temper tantrum. Perplexed by what was happening and the conversation, I started to evaluate things that might have changed that could be impacting her.
The answer was right in front of me. In the stable next to Lolli was a new horse we brought to the ranch. The behavioral issues started around the same time that Duncan moved in. Could the fix be as easy as the two horses didn’t get along or that she didn’t like him? We moved Duncan down to another stall, and we brought a horse closer to Lolli that she knew well. Within a day or two, she was back to her old self. What a learning experience that was for me. It appeared that the new horse stressed her, and she was acting out.
While that was the first incident that I vividly recall, there have been many others. Horses are quite finicky. I learned that these behaviors are a way of communicating with us. Generally, there are three reasons why equines misbehave. First, they may be in pain. I was first inclined to think that this was the case with Lolli when she wouldn’t lift her leg. The pain may have limited her range of motion, and she couldn’t move her leg.
The second reason that they might act out is from miscommunication. If a horse has a new trainer or they do not understand what is being asked of them, the only way that they can tell us is through behaviors. Lastly, their fears and insecurities can get the best of them. This is just another reason why experts believe horses and humans have similar brain mass. When they are scared, angry, agitated, or feeling anxious, they don’t know how to communicate with us about their angst. In Lolli’s case, she was no doubt being affected by the changes close to home. Just like a human, she had become accustomed to her surroundings, and she didn’t like change.
My friend, who seems to know horses well, told me that these animals can read me better than I could ever read them. Their keen senses are what helped them to keep from succumbing to their enemies in the wild. They have mastered the art of body language as their primary form of communication, though trust me, they can be quite verbal too. Here I am, years later, and I am still learning more every day. They do read my body language, and they can tell if I am upset or feeling anxiety. In return, I have learned how to read them too. I talk to them, watch their behaviors, and I try to figure out what’s wrong when there’s a problem.
Some of the senior horses are tired, irritable, and have pains from years of racing and being in the work field. We must learn their healthy behaviors and then notice any changes to help them with whatever is going on in their life. A barn is a crazy place, even though no one speaks, the communication is hard to ignore as it’s always loud and clear!