Saturday, November 26, 2011

A lesson to remember

I was hoping to update you all on the situation with Little Love already a few days ago, but my computer died. This time it utterly, definitely and completely died. Which meant I needed to get a new one. Pronto. Living without a computer does not come easily, once you are used to having on at hand all the time. The problem is now fixed and I am typing this on my brand new (and very small) laptop. Phew.

You may remember Melissa's experience with Little Love on Tuesday. When she called me afterwards, I felt confused and a bit frustrated (just like Melissa). What had happened to change my horse around this way? Little Love has been so calm and composed and now it seemed that within 24 hours she had gone from utter peace to utter panic.

Curious, I went to the barn the next day to see if I could shed some light to this strange behavior Lilo had exhibited with Melissa. When I got there, I tacked her up with the long reining gear, just like Melissa had the day before. Everything appeared normal. Well - until I walked down the road and made an attempt to pass the neighbor's house. Little Love tried to spin around, obviously wanting to head back to the barn, but I was quicker and blocked her way, urging her to walk on. She did, but tensely, her eyes popping out of her head. We walked with jerky steps to the mailboxes where she spooked after hearing a slight crack in the forest. She made an attempt to dart back to the barn, but I stopped her by throwing the long reins over her back and grabbing the rein closer to the bridle. I needed to stay next to her instead of behind her. I took a deep breath as Lilo pranced around me. Good God, what was going on? My horse was a basket of nerves.

We walked back to the barn, which took considerable effort from my part, since Lilo seemed to want to run back. My mind was racing, trying to come up with different reasons for this behavior. Was she getting too much food? Had there been a moose here the day before? Lilo seemed genuinely afraid, but not at anything in particular. She was listening at every little sound, even the raindrops hitting the trees in the forest seemed to freak her out. I had no clue what to think. Until I came back to the barn and Lilo shied away from the large tarp bag sitting close to the barn door. This was where we kept the oat pellets used for bedding in the stalls. It had been sitting in the yard for weeks. Maybe months.

It was then that the light bulb went on in my head. I had seen this behavior before, but it had been quite a while. To be exact, it had been almost a year to the day. This is how Little Love used to behave in Switzerland when the horses would not get to go outside for days, sometimes weeks due to "bad weather". Then, after days of being stall bound, she would emerge with heightened awareness of everything around her; sounds, colors, light - you name it. It was like sensory overload, and her reaction something she could not control in any way. It had made her practically unrideable at times, even in the indoor arena let alone on trails. This was probably partly what gave her the reputation of being "the crazy mare".

As soon as I recognized the behavior, I realized the source of it. During the weekend we had had very cold weather which froze the paddock completely. Unfortunately, because of the mud, the front of the paddock became very uneven, with sharp edges sticking out next to deep craters of frozen mud. The other horses seemed to be alright maneuvering around over this terrain to get to the back of the paddock where it was just plain hard, but it was too much for Little Love had her sore hooves. If she did make it to the bottom, she didn't want to come back up. And even at the bottom, she didn't move much.

The barn owner tried to solve the situation by splitting the little pikadero in the yard in half giving the other half to Vicky and the other to Lilo (so they could still hang out together, it was too small of a space to put them in together, Lilo needs space). The space each horse had was not very big, maybe just as much as four stalls put together. The weather warmed up again on Monday, but the paddock had been so frozen that it didn't exactly melt in a day. So, because of Lilo's feet, we decided to keep her and Vicky in the pikadero-paddocks for a few days. At leaet in the small area Little Love could move a bit, she could roll and she would be close to Vicky.

What we didn't completely internalize, however, was that even though she saw the other horses, she was separated from the physically. She was also standing in a very small area surrounded by an electrical fence (Lilo didn't need it but the barn owner was worried about Vicky staying in there). Lilo does not like electrical fences, even a very slight current makes her nervous and on edge. Nor does she like small spaces.  This was also a big change to her normal life in the paddock with Vicky, together. And Lilo doesn't like change. Especially not changes like these.

She was put into this paddock after lunch on Monday and although she spent the night in her stall, by Tuesday morning she was visibly upset. By Wednesday, she was out of her mind. And she was ready to tell me all about it. So, once I realized what was going on, I knew she needed to get some of this "informatíon" out of her system. Since there was no other place to go and do it safely, I lunged her in the small space in front of the barn. She bucked, she reared, she lunged forward. I took her for a walk, working with a clicker, trying to bring her to a place where she could control herself. We did "whoa"- stop - click - treat at least a hundred times, and just like a year ago in Switzerland, I could see that this activity brough Little Love momentarily to a better place. It was amazing to watch her like this, she was literally afraid of every branch, every stone on the ground. A bird croaking in the tree set her flying around you, a car on the road (a car!) made her spin around and attempt to drag me home. For one hour I walked her back and forth on the road to the mailboxes and back. Twice we walked down the hill, and both times Little Love was quite hyper, but slowly the exercize allowed her to bring her feelings down and to manage them with a bit more control. But, it was obvious that things needed to change. She could NOT go back to the little paddock, not for a minute.

I called the barn owner and told her we really needed to come up with a solution. I walked into the big paddock and inspected it. The weather was already much warmer and temperatures were no longer at freezing, so the top layer of the frozen mud had melted and become mushy. I believed it would be alright for Little Love to walk there without feeling her hooves too much. The barn owner showed up and agreed.

So, now the horses are back in the big paddock. And better yet, they are there TOGETHER. And when I say together, I mean all four of them; Kira, Manta, Lilo and Vicky. We discussed this among the other owners and decided it was about time we went back to having just one herd, something that had not happened since Metku was there (and it didn't work out)

Of course, Kira asserted herself the first second the horses were put together, but Vicky is very good at moving away from her and Lilo and Manta already have a good rapport with Kira. It has been interesting to see how Little Love has taken on the role of protecting Vicky. She often puts herself between Kira and Vicky, to act as a buffer between the two. Manta has been exceptionally docile, rather watching the situation than actively stirring the drama pot (what she used to do). I believe Little Love is emerging as the passive leader of this herd, when Kira is definitely the active one. Those two definitely have an understanding.

And what about Little Love's behavior since the herd was united on Wednesday afternoon? She is again a changed horse and her Zen is visible.  I took her out for long walks in the wind and rain Thursday and Friday (we did the long loop again, this time with Vicky in tow!) and Melissa was at the barn today and reported that Little Love was "back to normal".  

I am so grateful Lilo told us immediately that things were not working out for her and I'm even more grateful that we were able to figure this out fast enough. I know now that above all, my horse needs her herd and her space, or else she will turn into someone she really isn't. I'm sorry I was stupid enough to agree to putting her into this small paddock in the first place (what was a I thinking? Oh yes, I was thinking of the hooves...). On the other hand, I am happy I did it, because it taught me such an important lesson about what kind of animals horses are. Seeing the difference in my own horse in less than 24 hours has been eye-opening to say the least. Once I am able to wrap my brain entirely around this phenomenom, I will surely write about it in my other blog.

PS. In preparation for the next cold front, the barn owner has fenced a big area between the neighbor's house and the pikadero which is flat and soft. If Lilo encounters problems with her feet in the hard paddock, she will go to this other area with Vicky until it either snows or the paddock mud melts and she can walk in there again. I have also ordered a new set of boots (Old Mac's this time) which will hopefully stay on her feet better than the old ones which come off in the paddock quite easily.


  1. It is so important for people to remember that the way we "keep" horses is more important than what we do with them! Intelligent pet birds that are kept caged and ignored develop all kinds of bizarre, autistic-like behaviors when they are deprived of mental and physical stimulation. I'm so glad you have a progressive barn owner who's willing to work with you to find solutions for Lilo.

  2. Well done figuring out what was wrong!

    It seems that the problem is far more than just becoming unaccustomed to all those sights and sounds - after all, it was only a day or two, and Little Love is far too smart to forget. It must be a matter of pent-up energy and overload. How sensitive they are!

  3. Well done, I say as well! I'm glad you were able to figure this situation out, K. And like Fetlock said, thank goodness for a progressive barn owner. Little Love was telling you in the only ways she knows how and you listened. Also, I agree with Fetlock in that it's the way we keep our horses that has such an impact... What the horse's ethology tells us (their behavior and herd culture) says it all. We just must listen and try to honor that. Little Love is so lucky (as are the other mares at the barn!) to have you!