Shock, dismay, and fear gripped me in the moments preceding my riding lesson almost a month ago when my good horse went ballistic. My normally calm bay Thoroughbred gelding erupted into a squealing dragon, dealing out fierce kicks I now believe were intended for another horse who had been tethered behind him, on the other side of the cross tie area.
I had never seen such a display of emotion from my beloved horse before, and the thought he had a “dark side” troubled me. The fact that I was standing near his hindquarters grooming him and was dangerously close to his angry hooves when this incident unfurled gave me pause.
While the drama unfolded I was not as afraid as I was immediately after, when friends circled around to see if I was okay. The level of concern on their faces elevated my own emotion. Their wide eyes told me the part of the story I was unable to comprehend in the moment: I had narrowly escaped injury, possibly a serious one.
Making Sense of a Scary Situation
It helped to share this original story When Good Horses Go Ballistic online and in person. Thank you to those of you who read, shared, and added comments to the conversation. Talking and writing about my horse’s out-of-character outburst comforted me. In the moments shortly after it happened, I feared I owned a Jekyll and Hyde beast, not the equine good citizen I’ve known for the last year and a half. I had that sad feeling like finding out a leader I trusted had acted unethically or a close friend had betrayed me.
Reading through the thoughtful comments on both my blog and on Facebook I continued to process the episode. It had not occurred to me that my horse misconstrued my touch with the brush as the horse who had minutes before bared his teeth and pinned his ears at my horse until a fellow horse lover shared her interpretation in a Facebook comment. That helped.
Also, being reminded by another reader that ALL horses have this side–the ability to react strongly–helped me cut my horse some slack. I couldn’t fault him for behaving like a horse.
The comment that if my horse had wanted to kick me, he would not have missed–that he knew exactly where he was aiming and I was not the target was also reassuring. That helped me in the days immediately following the kicking, although I did pick left front hoof followed by left hind and then walked back up to the front and then picked right front followed by right hind.
A co-worker friend who has decades of experience with carriage horses really bolstered my confidence by reminding me that horses are constantly communicating with each other with body language that can be imperceptible to us. He asked if the other horse were also a gelding and I said yes. He said something to the effect of, “You know how boys are. . . they apparently have a personality conflict for some reason.” He told me to just always be aware and try to keep a nice buffer space between the two and not worry about it.
Another friend and I laughed (several days later) that Knight was like a guy on a street corner who felt like another guy had disrespected him: “What are you lookin’ at?!”
The Good Horse News, The Bad News and a Twist
Things went swimmingly when we rode in the arena with the other horse about a week later. I could tell Knight was slightly eyeballing the other gelding. I kept a larger buffer zone than possibly necessary and made sure I never cantered directly at him.
Earlier this week I got to the barn and when I approached the cross ties there was only one vacant slot: next to the particular gelding my horse apparently is not fond of. I was hesitant to “park” my horse to the side of him, but was given the green light by my trainer. Both horses’ body language was “normal” and relaxed.
Unfortunately, a few minutes into my grooming, my horse kicked out once in the direction of the other horse–not vocalizing and not both feet simultaneously. I was near his leg that delivered the jab, but not in the target zone. A loud clang rang out–my horse kicked at the metal bar and didn’t “get” his apparent foe. But that was it. He made his point perfectly clear. The explosion of a few weeks earlier was not a fluke. There’s some grudge I will never understand–no more standing in cross ties next to that gelding. Ever.
Everything else went on as normal. I had a nice ride in the arena. And in the end, as I finished at the same time as my friend and her horse–that one–we rode around our barn’s property together in a mock trail ride. Granted, we kept a larger-than-normal space between our two steeds, but the boys were fine, no ears pinned, heads shaking, teeth bared, or heels kicked out. They were quite gentlemanly.
While we were riding I told my friend, “Just so you know, I’m making a conscious effort to pay close attention to Knight’s body language right now.” She said she was doing the same thing. Our walkabout together was flawless. Good horse.
Last winter Knight colicked and was in the hospital for about a week. The veterinarian who treated him kept saying something to the effect, “Your horse is trying to tell us,” indicating we can’t always know the “why” of a situation, but we can clue in to the signals that something’s not right. My situation with my horse is not baseball–we don’t need three strikes. He has made his opinion obvious. I don’t understand the why and that’s okay.
I trust my horse again, but I will ensure he doesn’t wind up cross tie neighbors with his sometimes rival, sometimes trail ride buddy. He’s a good horse. They both are.