Thursday, July 21, 2016

What, more horse posts?

I should definitely stop attempting to tone down my obsessions with the idea that people might not want two or three blog posts in a row about one topic. Nonsense! This is a blog about obsessions!

So I shall do another horse post, this time about the ways horses appear to communicate.

One great thing about The Big Purple Barn is that you get to watch a lot of interaction between the horses in the herd. Since the paddock is fairly small the horses are easy to observe and there are usually several interactions in any given 5 minute time span that Barbara will let you stand around not doing anything. Hah! ;)

Yeah, Aspen - I wish I could stand around licking the walls but we've got stalls to muck, so...

The most obvious way in which horses communicate is weirdly also the least utilized. Horses scream at each other when annoyed or angry, excitedly whinny to each other when they are at a distance and want to say hi, and snort when they're stressed out or doing something new. Whenever it's feeding time we're met by a whole bunch of "hublublublubluh" type noises which I'm told is "nickering" but sounds mostly like a diesel engine idling. Weirdly, though, horses are mostly quiet animals.

The main form of communication between horses is through body language. Humans communicate like this too, like when someone hunches over and seems shy, or when someone is making big, jerky movements and seems angry or agitated. Horses use their ears, tails, faces, and body to say things. The most common thing to say appears to be "get out of my way." I see the horses interact this way most often when there's hay out in the field. One of the horses will be eating at a hay pile and another horse will come up to the hay pile, walking straight at it and if the other horse doesn't get out of their way then they put their ears back. If that doesn't work then horse #1 gets bites. If bites don't work I've literally seen Harry turn around, scream at the top of his horsey lungs, and kick at the other horse's face. (I've never actually seen him connect though...I guess he doesn't ACTUALLY want to stove the other horse's face in, which is reassuring...kinda.)

Thankfully Harry is more polite about food with humans.
Well, slightly less polite if there are bananas involved.

Tail swishing is supposedly another form of being irritated, but half the time it's due to flies being annoying so it's hard to tell unless it's paired with what I like to refer to as "grumpy ears," or ears that are pinned back like a cat's when they're irritated.

General body stance is also something they communicate with. I learned this when I was working with Aspen a few months ago and he was acting like he was afraid of going over a flat bridge thing, However, he legit had one hind foot cocked and was relaxed except for his head which he was tossing around with ears perked forward. What I was initially reading as "afraid" ended up being "obtuse." hehe. (He eventually did go over the bridge thing. I was very proud of him.) I also encounter it when horses are trying to chase each other around the field. One horse will kind of puff up and head towards another horse, who then moves away, or alternatively if it's a new horse who isn't used to the way the herd is organized, they'll both puff up and then there's a lot of kicking and biting involved. Sometimes a horse won't mind another horse eating or standing next to it, in which case it just won't respond when the other horse walks over, other than to perk up an ear.

There have been a few times where a horse has even communicated with me using eye contact. Usually this is Aspen, because he's the one I work most with so I'm more used to how he behaves. There was one instance when I was grazing him out by where Pepper the Pig and Cesquealia are kept, and Pepper was undergoing a somewhat forced eye exam. There were a lot of really horrifyingly unhappy pig sounds and Aspen was tense and looking/listening as hard as he could to the pig. I was standing next to him, trying to talk him down when he turned his head slightly and looked me dead in the eye like "Are we ok here?!" so clearly that I actually answered "yeah, we're good" and shrugged. Surprisingly, he then went back to eating grass (granted, still pretty tense) His head went back up about a minute later when Pepper let out a particularly intense squeal of hatred for all things humanoid, but I felt like something good had happened in the communications department.

A really cute communication has happened since I discovered that Chuck likes the insides of his ears scratched. Since that accidental discovery he has come over to me a few times in the field and deliberately mashed his ear into my hand, hoping I'll start scratching it. Unfortunately this occasionally leads to mashing his whole head into my torso to get a good scratch which is less fun. Hopefully I can communicate better that I only give ear scratches if he stands still!

Chuck's gigantic head for reference.
I definitely don't want this jammed into my side at ramming speed.

I hope that learning more about horse communication will help me to better understand how horses think and feel at any given time. The more I learn the better I'm able to judge when a horse is being scared vs stubborn, friendly vs pushy, and all those other sorts of important horse care/safety things. However, I also want to learn it just for the sake of learning more about how horses think. I've learned cat communication so well that I jokingly tell Ticky that he's beaming his cat-thoughts at me with his eyes, but I've been around cats literally since birth. I'm sure horses will take an equally long amount of time! What do you think- 20-something odd years from now do you think I'll be able to tell what a horse is thinking?

Me, looking adoringly at a horse who is thinking mostly about inhaling the most amount of grass
in the least amount of time.

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