A few years back, I met a client at a barn for a pre-purchase meeting with a potential new horse.
I got to the farm first and sat in my truck facing the fence line of a wide paddock. Behind it, five additional paddocks, equally wide, stacked up. There was a horse in each, eating a pile of hay.
As I watched the horses eat, I noticed that they talked a lot to each other. And not in a friendly way. Every one of the five horses would here and there dish out some hairy eyeballs. Would lift a hind leg. Or snake their neck to the left or right or both.
Looking at the situation more closely, I realized that the paddocks were wide one way but very narrow the other way. I’d say no wider than thirty feet.
And then I saw the culprit of the neighborly infringement. The hay.
The pile of hay for each horse was placed in the exact same spot in each paddock. The hay had been placed about 20 feet into the paddock. The same spot in each paddock. And that meant to eat their breakfast, the horses had to stand in a row next to each other. And their energy bubbles and their personal space were infringed upon. Despite the fence, energy doesn’t stay contained in a fence, of course. So basically, the horses all felt like how we feel when we eat breakfast sitting on a full airplane. Elbows almost touching.
I get why the hay was dropped right there. The person who fed it dropped it past the muddy area that always happens around the water throughs. And s/he dropped it as close as possible to the entrance to make it more convenient and safe time.
So, I wonder, how long will it take these horses who can’t eat in peace to build up enough tension that they eventually have an unexpected or undesired behavior? All because nobody ever observed the horses during their meals.
And, maybe those who observe the horses call out, “Daisy, stop the faces.” Or, “Duke, knock it odd.” To which daisy and Duke would say … “Gladly. If you could remove the other horse out of my bubble.”
Which is, of course, easily done. If each hay pile were dropped at a different distance away from the gate, it would stack the horses up differently, and all could eat in peace.
Here is another example of humans wanting things to be convenient. I wrote a column about it many, many years ago when i still had my sweet yellow lab Amber.
I often took Amber to a small local park where she got to exercise and sniff her little heart out.
There i noticed that in theory we tell ourselves that we are ‘taking the dog for a walk’, when the reality shows that we are often rather directive in how we want the dog to have fun.
Here is what I mean. The person holds the dog on a leash and walks at a certain pace through the park. The dog decides to sniff a shrub, the owner stops and, after a couple of short moments, encourages the dog to move on. The dog submits until the next interesting bush gets his attention. At this one, he sniffs and pees. The owner waits patiently until the dog relieves himself and says, “Come on, Lucky, let’s go”. The dog keeps sniffing until he feels the collar tightening up, and then he moves on. A tree comes up on the left, the dog stops to sniff again, and the person stops for a moment and then pulls the dog off the tree. Next, the dog wants to follow whatever he just sniffed, but the person wants him to walk on the path, not into the woods. … you get the picture?
No opportunity for the dog to truly read the neighborhood and explore who was here and who dropped what. For a dog, that is a very dissatisfying walk.
So I decided to observe what a dog on her own accord does.
Amber and I went to the park. I let her out of the truck and waited to see where she wanted to go. I did not use a leash for the experiment. However, later I tried it with a leash, which also works.
Amber started by sniffing around the rocks at the park entrance. After a while, she stopped, looked at me, and then headed down a path. I followed. She moved off the path onto the grass, off the grass onto the path, and finally stopped to look at me again.
I could see some confusion. Her look said, ‘What are you doing behind me? Where do we go from here? Usually, I am supposed to follow you.’
I waited so as not to give her any input. She waited, not knowing what to do. She looked and waited.
After a minute or maybe two, she decided that time was of the essence and walked on. Me in tow. She stopped another time or two to see if I was really not taking the lead today, I didn’t, and then took ownership of her walk in the park.
During that walk, I realized how in control I usually was.
I decide how much time we have, which path we take, and how long we pause at any given bush, shrub, or tree.
So what if Amber wants to sniff the shrub for a looooong time? So what if we don’t get to walk a mile but only half a mile? So what if she walks back and forth and around in circles rather than walking the path I decided on?
The moral of the story is…if we don’t attach human expectations to the walk in the park, the dog ends up having a lot more fun…and isn’t that the reason we take them to the park? And if it isn’t the reason, it should be the reason.
Ok, one last story.
A couple of nights ago, I got up from the sofa to go to bed. It was probably around 11 pm.
When I stood and said, “I am going to bed,” my sweet Arabian mare Shana neighed out to me. She often stands right by the house at night while boys are deep into the pasture. Shana must have heard my voice and taken the opportunity to get my attention.
Since the grass is getting pretty nubby at this point, I knew that throwing some hay over the fence would be much appreciated by the horses. But I was kinda tired and not in the mood to throw on shoes and head out for a midnight feeding. But. I also knew that my inconvenience would provide double comfort to my horses. It would show Shana that she can reach out to me and that I will hear her. Even if I had felt they didn't need hay, I would have acknowledged Shana’s call. I’d either go and sonnet with her at the backyard fence, or I would at least step on the deck and tell her, out loud, why hay was not in the cards. The comfort of being heard is equally important as the comfort of eating hay.
That’s why Shana and I have a connection beyond any other horse I have ever met. She and I have been together since she was a year old. I have listened to her ideas and suggestions from the day we met. Sometimes they inconvenienced me a lot, but, but, but, but, she is the easiest, most connected unicorn. She and I trust each other. I make her life comfortable. Even if it means I pull on a pair of boots at 11 o'clock at night to throw three flakes of hay over the fence.
And, I would guarantee that the person who finally figures out to feed the horses on that farm twenty feet apart, that person will get brownie points from the horses. They will know exactly who provided the comfort of eating their meals at peace.
And, I know that your dog will appreciate you hanging out on the sideline while s/he reads the neighborhood with nose, eyes, and ears to determine which tree to pee on. Now or later.
If a little bit of inconvenience can bring peace and comfort to your furry companions or the animals in your care … why not take the extra step ...