I parked by the barn and noticed all the horses were absent. Heads with perked ears greeted my arrival and confirmed my suspicions. Everyone was inside; all - except one - were blanketed. He was standing with his head buried in the far corner of his stall, hindquarters and ears facing his owner. She greeted me. "This is how he acts. It's getting more and more difficult to bring him in from the pasture. He fights me going into the stall and now he attacks me when I try to put his blanket on!"
I smiled at her and walked up to the stall. To help her, I had to shift her into a more beneficial energy pattern. Her voice and body movements radiated anxiety and fear. We weren't going to get anywhere if she didn't calm down.
The suspected course of events -
Gelding's POV: The weather is turning cold, yay! Seeing her coming, he shows off with a few hefty kicks and a hearty buck or two. Isn't this great?
Her POV: I must get the horses in. It's getting cold. They need to be indoors. They need their blankets. Why does that TB gelding always buck and kick when I come to get him? I don't like bucking and kicking. Loudly, waving her arms and shaking the halter at him, "Shoo, get away from me! I don't like it when you do that. You're too close!"
Gelding's POV: What is she doing? She doesn't usually act this way. Her loud squawking and panicked actions make no sense, so he gallops away.
Her POV: She needed to take care of him, he was misbehaving. She didn't have much time and she had a lot of chores to do. Why does this stupid horse always run away from me?
Gelding's POV: Her anxiety confused him. It means he should be afraid of something. What's does she want me to be afraid of? I don't want to go in there! Bring my buddies back! What are you carrying? No, I don't want that, it's too hot. He tries to communicate his strong desire to get back outside and enjoy the evening - minus that blanket.
My job -
Calm everything down and help the owner better read the situation. The communication is in a language she doesn't know. I am the interpreter. With any volatile situation the mediator comes in with quiet authority, turning the focus away from the situation. Once that is done, then I can help rebuild the bridge over the language barrier gap.
First, I separate them by moving in between. I use body language that she will understand - I smile. I use body language that he will understand, I get in close to his stall, claiming that space as mine. When she sees me smile, she begins to relax and when he senses me moving into his space, he feels less threatened.
Leaning against the stall door, I ask a few questions and her answers confirm the suspected course of events.
- She was, and still is, concerned about his well being.
- She was, and still is, concerned about her well being.
- She doesn't like bucking and kicking inside her personal space - which is about 30 feet.
- He was on his way over when he started acting up.
- He tends to act up only when it's cold.
- She raised her voice and waved her arms to protect herself from him.
- He was difficult to catch after his bucking and kicking routine.
- She was in a hurry.
- When she caught him he was reluctant to come in.
- When she put him in his stall he got all big and excited.
- She left him and blanketed the other horses first.
- When she tried to blanket him, he moved away and when she insisted he got nasty.
I look over at the gelding and see that he is not clipped. He's in full southwest Florida winter coat. I take note of the barn. It is well constructed, tight, no drafts. All the doors are closed. I'm ready to shed down to a T-shirt. I glance over at the gelding and he's bug eyeing me. I ask and am given permission to step inside. I enter the stall with no expectations. I lean against the wall opposite the gelding and wait. He doesn't hesitate to join me. He wants out and I am his ticket to freedom. While we get to know one another, I explain things to her.
Horses are amazingly adaptable creatures. They can handle extreme weather before they need human intervention. The gelding was not clipped. His winter coat would keep him comfortable to temps in the low 20’s. Her look was skeptical. I explained my lifetime of winters in Colorado with pastured horses minus blankets. I explained that Florida just doesn’t get that cold. I explained that a clipped horse needed protection, but her gelding did not. I explained that he overheated while wearing the blanket and had no way to remove it. For him, the blanket was torture.
Then I asked her to try an experiment. I explained that it would take a couple of tries and she needed to be patient. When she agreed, I asked that she remove all the blankets and turn the horses back out. Then I asked her to wait for the evening to progress and just before bed, head back out to the pasture with a blanket that had the neck straps closed to create a hole for the horse’s head. I asked her hold it up and wait about a minute. If a horse came over and put it’s head in the hole, then she should blanket that horse. If no one came over, she should put the blanket away and get a good night’s sleep. In the morning, if any horse was shivering, bring the blanket with the hole. Hold it up and see if that horse was cold enough to come get it. If so, blanket them. If not, go back inside and eat some piping hot oatmeal!
The whole idea of leaving the horses well-being up to them flabbergasted her. I knew it would be difficult for her to see this situation from her geldings point of view. I assured her that no horse had died of hypothermia in Florida.
For her, these were radical ideas, but I received a phone call several days later with an update. Only one horse in her herd consistently put his head through the hole. That horse happened to be a very old one who didn’t have much coat. She didn’t see any shivering, but she could see their breath on the really crisp mornings. She was shocked at the level of communication this idea suggested.
Yep, I agreed. They are darn good communicators. All we have to do is listen...