Friday, April 25, 2014

Horses in Fiction: The terrorist in the pasture

Aaagh. Some days having one horse sounds just so good. Something to know and remember about horses: being herd animals, they have to figure out how to live with each other just like everybody else. Since written law is pretty much out when establishing peaceful relations, that leaves the law of brute force to determine the pecking order within the herd. And trust me, if you have two horses, it's a herd.

Which means somebody has to be in charge.

Around here, that used to be Beau, my big, gorgeous Saddlebred gelding. After I sold him, it left Nellie and Pilot, both of whom were subordinate to Beau. Now he was the easy-going quiet type who never felt much need to throw his weight around. He was there first, he was bigger, and that pretty much said everything to the timid newcomers. Things were fine until Pilot discovered Beau wasn't coming back. Then that little turkey decided he was boss. And he has to show it. ALL the time.

Just like Average Joe who has suddenly been put in charge, Pilot became Mr. Control Freak (with rather hysterical exceptions. More about that later). Nellie, resigned to her fate at the bottom of the totem pole, sort of lets it all bounce off, but nonetheless, it is she who gets bounced out of the barn to eat her food in the rain; it is she who gets run off of her pile of food while he inspects it to see if she got something better than he did; it is she who stands in the rain while Pilot guards the door to the barn (which also effectively blocks both feeders). I finally got tired of him standing at her stall door harassing her, or alternatively, Nellie snatching a mouthful of hay and running outside to eat it, and just started feeding her outside. Naturally, this led to Pilot leaving his food untouched in his feeder and running outside to drive her off. Being afraid to be trapped in the barn when he came back, subject to his bared teeth, she stood around and watched wistfully while he ate her hay and then went inside to eat his own.

After a long winter feeding them both outside, which I hate, there is a reason I'm thinking about selling Pilot.

It's either that or remodel the barn, which was set up for one horse. How did I end up with three, now two? Don't ask. Horses accumulate like rabbits. Nobody can have just one.

The herd dynamic aside from that is somewhat interesting. Nellie, who was so ridiculously herdbound when I bought her that I spent the first month hand-walking her longer distances every day away from Beau to drive it into her little brain that yes, she was going to come back, and yes, she would survive ten minutes away from him, is much less enamored of Pilot as consort. Granted that he beats up on her, she still is less anxious to be separated from him, and if they get out, it is her you had better catch. You can lead her away from the pasture and Pilot will always follow; you can lead him away and she may decide she has better things to do than go after him.

Here is where it gets stupidly weird, and funny. When she is in heat in the winter, she sometimes will stand in the lowest corner of the pasture, staring soulfully down the hill toward the neighbors' horses (who must look much better as potential mates than poor gelded Pilot). She will stand there for three days, leaving her hay untouched. So who is stupid enough to stand down there with her, nobly starving to show his solidarity? Why Pilot, of course, Mr. Tough Guy, who also abandons his hay because he is so afraid of getting fifty feet out of her sight.

I love my horses, but if they're that dumb, I am not wading down icy trails through knee-deep snow to rescue them when they both know where the food is. If I put her in the stall he would just stand there and a) crib, and b) harass her over the door. And she would likely have a panic attack that would be much worse for her than going hungry by choice for a couple of days. As they say, you can lead a horse to water (or food) but you can't make them drink. Ask Pilot, who would not drink mountain water for two days until he finally got thirsty enough to just wade out in the creek and forget that it tasted different.

Sometimes, you just have to go with the flow. We worry greatly about our horses and forget that they have been successful survivors for as long as we've been around. So if your fictional horsey has a few quirks, don't worry about it. They add flavor to the story and authentic personality to your equines.

I finally published a book that has lots of horses acting like horses! The Mask of God is out, and the equines are very much part of the story. Check it out if you get a chance, and if you like these columns, do leave me a review of the book on the bookseller's site and spread the word. Thanks!