That happened to me Tuesday with Nellie, and again last evening. Since I am writing this in the airport on the way to the Westercon science fiction convention in Portland, OR, you can imagine how much greater a kink that put into my reaction. Do I go? Do I stay? Do I wait and see and have someone check on her? As of 0430 this morning she was fine, thanks, so here I am. But still. Oh geez, it is a nasty feeling. Imagine how your fictional character riding through the wilderness or eluding pursuit will feel when he wakes up and discovers his horse standing with head down and a general air of “I don’t feel good, Dad.”
Let me start by saying that knowing something is wrong doesn’t have to be anything obvious like a horse holding a foot up or rolling in pain from colic. No, it’s lot more subliminal sometimes. In the same way that most people can tell when someone close to them is having a bad day just from facial expression or body language or tone of voice, horsepeople can tell from the way the horse is standing, the cock of the ears, the set of the head, the droop of the tail, or the look in their eyes that something is off. A certain curl to the lip should be a warning that Horsey is not in a good mood; splayed hind legs can indicate pain in the hooves or gut or irritation between his legs. If he’s “camped under” with his hind hooves far forward under his belly, he may be trying to ease his back or take the load off his front legs or hooves. Standing off-kilter with his weight oddly distributed may indicate pain in the shoulder or hip. That doesn’t include the normal “hip-shot” stance of a horse standing with one hind hoof cocked and hip sagging. He’s usually just asleep.
It’s all in the body language. If your character is supposed to be an expert horseman, then he/she would pick up on cues like these.
In Nellie’s case, she and Pilot were both in the barn, avoiding the heat and the gnats/flies/mosquitoes down in the pasture. Pilot was in the doorway, looking fine; Nellie was farther back in the shade where she usually stands, yet when I leaned over the fence to scratch her neck, her eyes were half shut. That right there was odd, because she didn’t look sleepy; she looked dopey. Plus, she didn’t look at me, which is unusual right there. She always pays attention when I come in, and she’s always hoping for treats. She’s big on sticking her muzzle through the fence and nuzzling my hand. And, in general, a horse will wake up to look at you, because you might be a threat.
She could have just been sleeping and lethargic from the heat. Or not. She just did not look right, so I went in and checked her. She still did not act interested, and when she went outside she was actually squinting in both eyes. Cue stomach sinking a little farther. Then she backed up to the fence and started to scratch her tail.
Now, this time of year, tail scratching is not unusual. Gnats drive them crazy, and can make raw patches at the top of their tail or on their chest or belly. Sometimes if the dock area (just under the tail) is really dirty it itches. Worms can make them scratch their tails, but they were both just wormed not six weeks ago. Certain plants can make them itch or react. So that didn’t worry me nearly as much as the eye thing. Plus, she was so lethargic. And she kept shifting a little on her hooves. Ugly words like “sleeping sickness” and “founder” floated through my mind. I began trying to remember when I last gave them their vaccinations. Eeee.
She felt warm, but it was a hot day and she is a black horse. Her hooves were cool, so it likely wasn’t founder. I did not have the means to check her temperature but there was nothing obvious to the eye that would cause a fever. No puffiness in her legs, no welts from bees on that silky hide, no cuts or open sores. Her eyes weren’t swollen or weepy as with allergies or bugs, and she perked up a lot when the sun sank far enough for the evening to cool off. So... no panic, but I checked her the next morning and she seemed fine. Her eyes were open and she was perky and eating well. Crisis averted, right?
Well... Last night she wasn’t just standing in the same spot in the barn with droopy (not squinty) eyes. She was also sweating gently. That can be anything from heat to pain to fever, but she was not at all distressed, just...off. A little. Enough to make me worry, not enough to rush to call the vet and waste everyone’s time. Half an hour later she was down in the pasture eating her head off. She was no longer sweating and walked and trotted fine, with no more reluctance to bestir herself than usual. She is not a horse to waste energy just running up and down like Pilot. She’ll run and buck and play, too, but she is just a more sedate horse than he is.
And at 0430 this morning when it was nice and cool, she was hungry and ornery and perfectly willing to trot up and take a treat from my hand. So, I’m guessing heat, and that I woke her up. Maybe it was a passing reaction to something she ate. And maybe a bit of bugginess, though there was no obvious sign of irritation in her eyes. After I washed her dock and tail with soapy water she hasn’t been scratching anymore, so it was likely just gnats. The eye thing still makes me wonder, but...
Such are the joys and perils of horse ownership, because they can’t tell you. You can only watch and guess and call the vet if you’re really not sure. But vets aren’t usually readily available in stories, so your horsey hero had better pay attention. And if he cares about his horse, he will be caught on the same horns of indecision as all of us—is he sick or isn’t he? Can I safely ride him or will he collapse under me? Maybe I should wait a day. But what about the bad guys chasing me? Aaaagh!
The bottom line is that your character will know the second she lays eyes on her horse that she might have a problem. How that impacts your plot is up to you, but oh the possibilities! Just don’t forget to add that instant sinking feeling to the hero’s reaction, because I guarantee you, every horseman feels it.