Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Of Course They Have Emotions

My favorite portrait of Callie, just after a bath.  Hadn't washed her face yet.  She likes the way a cloth feels on her face, but she is so impatient that I am usually wetter than she.
The author of The Horse God Built, Lawrence Scanlan, wrote in his 1998 book, Wild About Horses,* "Few humans have ever wondered what animals were thinking or feeling, or even granted the possibility of animal thought or emotion." 
Not long ago I was asked if horses show emotion, because their facial expressions seldom seem to change.  It was a friend who has spent little time with horses who asked and she was surprised to find that their range of emotions is as complete and complex as our own, but mostly played out on a physical stage.  Horses do use their infrequent verbalizations to express how they are feeling or what they might want another horse or person, for that matter, to do.   A horse can even nicker, "Good morning," as mine often do.
Horses feel anger, boredom, fear, resentment, jealousy, loneliness and abandonment, as well as grief, just as we do.  Their ears and bodies tell us a great deal: ears up, down and sometimes sideways (interest, anger and boredom), chewing without eating, a hoof cocked when standing (at ease or learning or resting), among others.  We simply have to watch them to learn their language.
But what about affection?  Do my girls feel comforted by me, do they need me?  In all the years Callie and Stormy have been with me I have never been 100% sure.  Oh, Stormy will practically wrap herself around me when she is uncertain or a bit fearful, at a clinic for instance.  At night when I feed her she will touch my back or shoulder with her mouth and nose while I spread her hay, all the while drooling all over me.  Is this affection or just simple curiosity?
Perhaps it is because the three of us are getting older that the presence of one another as members of the herd has taken on greater meaning.  But I have begun to see changes in them, especially in Callie.
I had just gotten back from this year's "Road To The Horse" and the woman who takes care of them while we are away had fed and put them to bed.  After three days without seeing and touching them I had to make a quick visit..  Stormy, in her usual way, let me know  that she was mad at me, turning her head after greeting me with her rock hard eyes and by peeing in her stall, which she never does, her anger and rebellion in bloom.  Just Stormy being Stormy and I understand.
Because Callie has a controlled navicular problem, I wanted to clean her hooves and say hello to her too.  As I finished her right side hooves, she turned her head and touched her right side, just as I had taught her to do when flexing, once, twice and held it there after the third touch.  I stood and took her huge head in my arms and lay my head on her forehead.  We stood together in that way for several minutes.
Our part of the state has rainy, cold winters and springs, so not a lot of riding gets done for several months.  Each spring I start my horses in the same way.  Using a training halter and lead rope, I simply walk my horses up and down the pasture.  I ask them to disengage their hind quarters, turn on the forehand and back up, nothing too strenuous, just letting them know that it is time to work.
Stormy always shows great distress, jealousy really, whenever I pay attention to Callie.  As Callie and I reached the farthest point in our pasture Stormy charged at a full gallop toward us.  Alert and enraged, ears erect and eyes focused, she began to harass Callie (never me).   Callie began to pull on the lead rope and swinging her massive hind quarters from side to side.  She was frantic, throwing her head up and down trying to avoid Stormy.  Callie will sometimes buck, kick and even rear when she's in a tight spot, and I could feel it coming.  Pretty soon the wagons were circled and I was between them.  Now I was in danger.  Using the end of  Callie's lead rope I began twirling it to drive Stormy away. With her eyes flashing and her sweat-soaked sides heaving, Stormy retreated. 
Fear like an electric current charged Callie's body.  The twirling rope relieved the danger Stormy presented but drove Callie to hysteria. As she pulled on the lead rope, her head ripping the air from side to side, backing and wheeling on her hind legs, I should have let go, but I began talking to her softly, following her as she backed away, staying with her, reassuring her, speaking calmly and gently until she stopped her crazed flight.  It was quiet and I could feel the tension leave her body through the rope I still held.  Callie took three or four quick steps forward and lay her head on my shoulder.  I could hear her breathing slow.  I put my hand over her muzzle and stroked it until our hearts beat normally.  Questions answered.
Other things:
Last week the air finally warmed enough for a few flies to show themselves.  I knelt down to spray
Callie's front legs and when I did, something startled her.  She swung her head around and caught me on the forehead near my hairline (yes, I still have a hairline).  When the stars cleared (and there were stars), I was against the fence nearly six feet away, with a frail grip on consciousness.  When the bees stopped buzzing in my brain I finished spraying her and went on with life.  Mad?  No, it wasn't intentional.
The next post will be an interview with a horse trainer.  He makes some interesting observations. Following that, a review of the 2015 "Road To The Horse" and perhaps an essay on the former Kentucky Derby winner, Grindstone.
*Wild About Horses  by Lawrence Scanlan, 1998 by HarperCollins Publishers
Text and Photo Copyright May 5, 2015 by Loren R. Schumacher

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