Monday, June 18, 2012

Horses in Fiction: The Annoying Horse

Kalup is the pack horse front and center.
He got revenge on all that stuff
Okay, I am an expert on annoying horses. Kalup was in a class all by himself in that regard. He was born a fiddler and never changed, although he had his (very) endearing qualities to keep himself from ending up on the business end of my dad's rifle. He did come close once, at that. Every fall my father went hunting deep in the mountains and used the horses to pack out the game. Kalup did not take kindly to standing around in camp being bored all day. A master at untying himself, he spent all day while everyone was off hunting getting himself loose, then trashed the entire camp, scattering stuff for fifty yards around. Imagine the scenario when everyone returned: Tired hunters. Loaded rifles. Smug horse. Severe temptation.

No matter how much we love our horses, every horse owner experiences times we just want to shoot them and be done. Even the well-mannered ones can forget themselves in the heat of the moment, or when they find themselves bored, tired, hungry, thirsty, or in a scary situation. How does that manifest?


Bored older horse cribbing (sucking wind).
Note that the cribbing collar isn't stopping him.
Yes, even animals with small brains can become bored. Very bored. By nature, horses are meant to wander large areas in search of food and water, grazing their way along between water holes. When full, they stand around swishing flies until hungry again, at which point, they graze their way along to the next favorite spot. When confined, however, to small paddocks and stables and restricted to two or three fixed meals a day, they have nothing at all to do the rest of the time but swish flies and be bored. They have all kinds of energy built up by the often very rich food fed to them, and it has to go somewhere. It can manifest as stable vices like chewing wood, weaving (literally rocking back and forth or swinging their heads endlessly), pawing, and wind sucking (grabbing onto the nearest projection and gulping down air). It can also come out in sour attitudes, flattened ears, charging for the stable door or gate whenever it's opened, shoving, running over you to get to the turnout area where horsey can kick up his heels and have some fun, and other dangerous behavior. Sometimes it is just weird. When Kalup was stabled at Ft. Lewis, the woman with the next paddock had white electrical tape strung around the top of her fence to discourage contact between him and her horse. She didn't know Kalup. He calmly timed the electrical pulses and drew crowds to watch him strum his upper lip on the tape--for hours. All of his stable toys were less fascinating to him than risking getting zapped.

The tied horse may occupy himself digging a trench to China, and you will come back to find him standing down by the head, knee-deep in his private hole. The Forest Service does not take kindly to these beasts. He may also investigate the lead rope, and either chew it in half, untie it, or pull back and jerk the knot so tight it takes an hour to undo it. He may tangle himself if you tie him too long, or even hang himself. My nephew's supposedly well-broken horse broke his neck lunging into a tree when he decided he didn't want to be tied up anymore. There are a thousand ways to make camp scenes interesting/dangerous/tragic with your fictional bored horse.


Tired horses quickly become crabby horses and lose their tolerance for the usual run-of-the-mill annoyances. A horse that usually will not take offense at being crowded by another might suddenly haul off and let the offender have it with one or both hind hooves, or whip his neck around like a snake with flattened ears and teeth bared. He may continually try to pull the reins out of the rider's hand and head off in some direction he thinks will get him home faster (he may be right). He might try to lie down. He might start jigging or tossing his head and displaying general signs of impatience with the whole day's program. He may become very balky and refuse to keep going. He may try to rub you off on the nearest tree. He may sidle off the trail in an attempt to get his way. Pushing him in this state is just mean, and your fictional hero had better have a really good reason. At some point the poor beast will just wear out and quit, and no amount of beating will get him going again.

The tired horse is also usually sweaty and itchy. He wants that saddle and bridle off right dang now. The second you dismount, a horse with lousy ground manners will immediately try to rub his itchy head on anything in sight, starting with the fence, progressing to you, and finally to his front leg if all else fails. While he may appreciate all your careful grooming, odds are it will all be ruined two seconds after you turn him loose, because he will instantly flop down in the dirt and roll the itch out. In this regard, Kalup had one endearing habit. He was too well-trained to rub on me or the fence, but he would happily rub his forehead against my outstretched palm for ten minutes at a time, and become blissful when I scratched below his ears.


Don't get between hungry Horsey and his food. Or between him and the water trough when he is dripping sweat and desperate for a drink. Most horses will wait their turn, but the poorly trained or excited animal will not. His training goes on hold and his brain goes into neutral and he will scramble over pretty much anything in his path, from you to other horses to large boulders and fallen trees to get to the object of his desire. If he is aggressive he will think nothing of walking over the top of you, dragging you with him by the reins, shouldering you aside, even nipping at you to clear a path. He may sidle or run excited rings around you even if you have a firm grip right at the bit, and not be at all fussy where he puts his feet. You may have a very hard time holding him back, especially from water. He can jerk hard enough to give you rope burns, dislocate your shoulder, or send you stumbling along three or four steps before you catch your balance. It is very easy to end up on the ground if he butts you with his nose or shoves you with his shoulder, and if your hero holds onto the reins he/she could end up being trampled or dragged. I can tell you that I don't care how strong the man; a really desperate horse has all the advantages in weight and frenzy, and holding onto him is nearly impossible if he loses it enough to begin striking at you.

One exceptionally annoying habit among some horses is refusing to drink in strange venues. Pilot went thirsty his first two days in the mountains because he would not drink from the only sources--a rushing stream and a bucket that tasted of the plastic holding tank in my horse trailer. He didn't know how to deal with moving water and it scared him to boot until he got thirsty enough to figure it out. Other horses will not drink funny-smelling water from strange troughs (chlorinated or mossy). Some show people get around this by using Kool-Aid to make it all taste the same no matter where they go. It is really true that you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make him drink. A really thirsty horse will drink from a scummy mud puddle, however.

If he is hungry, a mannerless horse is not above taking the food out of your hand, shoving you aside with his nose or thrusting his muzzle into the bucket hard enough to dislodge all the contents and dump the whole thing on the ground (and you, too). You may end up standing in a nice circle of scattered hay he has knocked from your grasp while he runs off with his stolen mouthful. This is especially common in herds where the low guys in the pecking order are really hungry because the more dominant horses have been guarding the food. You can get badly hurt by horses jockeying for position or trying to get at the food as you're distributing it if your horses are not separated into stalls or other feeding areas.

Hungry horses are noisy horses. At any movement in camp or at the stable door they will start up a morning chorus of "Feed me! Now!" There will be lots of whinnying and snorting and hopeful huh-huh-huhing. There will be jostling, laid-back ears, and threatening among the tied beasts, who will happily take out their frustrations on their buddies. Many will start pawing to emphasize that you should hurry (or start in at oh-dark-thirty in hopes of waking you up). They will be sidling impatiently around whatever they're tied to and their heads and ears will be up and straining to spot you coming their way. Don't count on sleeping late when traveling with horses.


Horsey can become annoying very quickly when he's nervous. Nellie, being herdbound to the max, completely loses it when asked to go somewhere she's not seen before (even reversing a normal route) because then she is uncertain where home lies. At that point she begins fussing with the bit, starts to pull, dances through and over anything in her path, and generally loses her tiny mind. And she's way better now than when I started with her. Sigh.

Very annoying habits of scared equines include leaping without looking (onto the horse ahead, sideways into the brush, or over anything in their path); whirl and run, also without looking; fretting, head-tossing, grabbing at the bit, bulling their way into the bit in hopes of overpowering you, and outright bucking or bolting in an attempt to get rid of you or leave behind whatever is scaring them. They will take giant leaps into water or bogs or anything else if they feel threatened from behind or see themselves being left by the other horses. They take little heed of anything in their way in their departure from the threat zone. This often gets them hurt but they don't actually care until it's all over. You are then stuck patching up the pieces.

There are a million ways for horses to be annoying, from balking at every strange sight on the trail to unlatching gates and pooping in the water bucket. Such habits, however, make for interesting equines in your fiction, a wonderful departure from the usual perfectly trained background beasts.

I invite you to add your pet horsey peeves in the comments! I have barely scratched the surface here, and I know for sure I haven't seen all the ways a horse can aggravate his rider.


Winnie S. said...

Wow! Thanks for this. I had no idea that horses could refuse to drink from certain sources. I have to work that into a story. A question: I once won some free lessons in English style riding. The instructor was showing me how to sit, guide the horse etc and mentioned that this particular horse didn't care for turning left and tended to balk. Why do horses develop complexes like that?

Kathryn Scannell said...

There is nothing in the world fruitier or more annoying than a bored Arabian. Mine used to take positive joy in pretending to be frightened of things when he was bored. I owned him for a couple of years before I saw/felt him really be frightened of something, and saw through the act he liked to put on in every corner of the arena when we were working.

He had peculiarities about the horse trailer to. He would not drink in one, even at rest stops. Nor would he pee in the trailer. He wouldn't even try when he had a rider aboard either. Once he got so agitated on a long trail ride that my more experienced friend and I were afraid he'd eaten something poisonous and was starting to colic. I finally got off, figuring it made more sense to walk him the last 1/4 mile home. We walked about 20 feet, and then spread his legs and let go, and suddenly he was himself again.

Anonymous said...

Hah, this brings back memories, Sue. We had a horse that weaved and a horse that cribbed at various points. And I definitely saw a lot of that feeding behavior. We fed them in separate stalls, but there were many times where a horse tried to sneak a mouthful of hay or grain before it was tossed in the right place.

Joyce Reynolds-Ward said...

One thing about cribbing and windsucking in a modern setting--while those can be acquired stable vices, current veterinary wisdom is that those vices can be indicative of gastric ulcers. As can other behaviors indicating sourness and bad attitude (wringing tail, unwillingness to bend, etc). Fascinating stuff that I didn't know. I've had friends that treated ulcers and the habits stopped...haven't seen it because there's not a lot of cribbing at my barn.

Annoying habits--Mocha likes to flip her tail in her water bucket and soak it. No relation to exterior temperature or heat cycles, the factor appears to be whether she's wearing a blanket or not. She doesn't mind the wet tail on her hind legs, either. Still trying to figure out that one. And the water bucket is high enough that she has to do it on purpose. No signs of problems on the tail dock.

DLGardner said...

My experience with horses isn't with the stable horse. We had 80 acres adjacent to BLM land that 25 or our horses roamed free. We'd keep a different horse corralled every night and round up the herd the next morning and rotate them as such. It was wonderful to watch the horse in their natural environment. The wild horse has its own nuances. A lead mare runs the herd, and the stallion always comes up behind. In breeding season they do a remarkable chase with their heads to the ground at full gallop. An amazing sight to watch. A horse in its natural enviroment will pick loves the wind and seems to almost dance with it. And when it rains, they stand with their backs to the storm. Thanks for your blog.

Works of S. A. Bolich said...

Winnie, sometimes it is physical. Horses can be naturally one-sided (right-handed, if you will) and it is more difficult, sometimes even painful for them to work in one direction, or, like track horses, they've only ever really been worked to the left and they're stiff to the right. He may have a sore hoof or leg, and turning to the left may put more pressure on it, which makes it painful enough he doesn't want to do it.

Works of S. A. Bolich said...

Heh, Kathryn, yeah, I'm known horses that pretended like that. Most of our horses didn't like to pee in the trailer or the truck either. I think it was the splashing that annoyed them. They often didn't make it ten feet outside before seizing the opportunity for relief.

Works of S. A. Bolich said...

Joyce, that's interesting about the ulcers. I hadn't heard that. Pilot is a cribber so I should ask my vet if that could be his problem. It annoys me no end to listen to him, but if he's actually uncomfortable I want to fix it.

Works of S. A. Bolich said...

Dianne, I know exactly what you mean. Our horses roamed our 300+ acres at home and it was a delight to watch them play, especially the colts playing tag or teasing the older mares. My two have most of 20 acres to play and run and graze in, and yes, the fools still stand down in the exposed corner with their backs to the wind and rain and snow rather than stand in the barn out of it. They like the barn in the summer because the flies are less and it's shady (though they have lots of trees for shade in the pastures).

Sylvia Kelso said...

Not so much annoying perhaps as sly...
The old(er)pony I learnt to ride on (at about 5) was very stolid and steady and wd. take care of v. young children or total beginners. But if or when said older beginners started to get sassy, he had a put-down he wd. use just as the rider was hopping on one foot to mount. He wd. look round, then plant his left fore very delicately and gently on the toe of the hoppee's boot.
I never knew him actually get the foot, but the spectacle of an anchored neo flapping desperately with a well-grounded right foot, while Captain looked calmly on, (only) sometimes with one ear cocked, was certainly not one to forget.

Works of S. A. Bolich said...

Sylvia, that's hysterical. Who says they don't think? :)

Elizabeth Barrette said...

Some horses don't like to be ridden, and will blow up to make the girth go loose. Or they will deliberately plant a hoof on your foot and just stare while you try to shove them off. Mouthy horses will lip or chew at anything including your pockets or hat or grooming tools. Mules, and a few pack horses, may lie down if the load is too heavy.

Works of S. A. Bolich said...

All true, Elizabeth! Kalup was a fiddler, and somewhere I have a picture of him with my husband's cowboy hat in his mouth at a 1-day event. My mare likes to blow up when I saddle her. She hasn't figured out that there are two sides to that saddle, and forgets to do it when I tighten the girth on the off side. LOL.

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