Murray and I recently had a development in our communication that makes me seem like a huge asshole. Which I will readily admit that I am, sometimes. But I’m not sure this is really one of those times.
Horse professionals have long been telling me things like “horses don’t lie”, or “listen to your horse, they’re trying to tell you something”, or “horses are inherently truthful creatures”, or even “horses don’t have the ability to be deceptive”. And I don’t necessarily disagree with these things. I don’t think that the vast majority of horses (going to go ahead an say 99% here) have the ability for premeditated deception. Sure, some horses will learn that when they come out a little stiff and janky they get put right back, so it might behoove them to be stiff and janky because they keep getting rewarded for such behavior. But no horse sits in his stall and thinks, “now, if I just make sure not to put any weight on that right front hoof today, my owner will definitely think something is wrong and give me the well deserved spa day that I actually deserve.”
But I have never totally bought it that a horse is always telling me the truth. There are little lies, like “I’ve never seen a trot pole before in my life! How does one horse this contraption?!” which are some variation of “I can’t”/”I don’t wanna”. And I even understand how “I can’t” and “I don’t wanna” can be really valuable and truthful indicators of something hinkey going on physically or mentally, and should be paid attention to. And there are occasionally big misunderstandings, like “holy shit that patch of weird ground is the most horrifying thing I have EVER SEEN oh actually it’s fine, nevermind.”
And then there are the Chicken Littles of the world.
For a long time, trying to understand what Murray was telling me behaviorally was ridiculously difficult. He could be so sensitive and reactive that absolutely anything that upset him turned into a huge deal. Sometimes he seemed to respond really reasonably to the various stimuli of life — a leaf blowing across the barn aisle, a funny sound, a wheelbarrow going by — and sometimes the sky was absolutely falling for weeks on end, and anything more exciting than another horse casually walking past him was cause for IMMEDIATE ALARM. Responses were scaled proportionately to the level of excitement elicited, just starting around a 7 on a 1-10 scale and going up from there.
This is not exactly what I would call reliable or honest communication. At some point, when someone tells you that there’s a wolf in the pasture every single day and there is never a wolf there, you stop listening. There is no wolf out there, the sky isn’t falling, yes that is a saddle, and there is an extension cord that wasn’t there yesterday, and this is just real life, and you have to get used to it. (Part of me feels like this is something baby animals are supposed to learn. It’s what I teach puppies — the world is a large and dynamic place, and we don’t get to live in a box that never changes. Am I wrong in thinking that foals/yearlings/young horses with good handling probably get taught those things too?)
This type of communication isn’t what I would call honest, but it isn’t distinctly dishonest either. Sure, Murray was (probably) trying to tell me about one of the fifty six butterfly-sized things that might be bothering him at any one time — there’s a cat over there, that trash can is new, someone is putting a blanket on another horse!!!! But those aren’t things that bother 95% of the equine population, and they certainly aren’t things that ought to bother him. And they aren’t the kind of communication that is actually telling me something — it doesn’t necessarily mean he is sore, or has an abscess, or needs his hocks injected. It just means a gnat farted somewhere in a mile radius and Murray took offense.
So maybe I’m an asshole for not listening. But unless the horse was really, physically trying to kill himself (or at risk of doing so), it was so much easier to just tune it out.
A few weeks ago, Murray didn’t want to pick up his left hind foot for me to pick out. It was strange and annoying, because I thought I’d solved the whole foot picking out situation years ago with a lot of treats and praise. He would dance away from me all around the tying post (yeah, we still don’t cross tie), and finally for a few days I gave up on picking the foot out and settled with picking it up to look in it briefly and put it down again. It was ridiculous but it resolved itself in four or five days.
Then last week, I found two blown out abscess holes on his right hind. One from the coronet band, an one in the heel bulb. Probably from about the time of the not foot pick upsies issue.
Last week I also had a saddle on trial. It was a great saddle, at a steal of a price, and everything about it said it would probably fit Murray (I ultimately returned it because it was a hair too long and didn’t fit me). And when I tried it on Murray he had a pretty horrified, violent reaction. But, I thought, that was because I stupidly put a bare leather saddle on his naked back. Everybody knows you put the saddle pad down before the saddle, you silly human.
So we did the whole routine, I put a pad under it because it looked a little wide, we did a very loose girth, and then because Murray was especially touchy that morning I went outside to do the girth up the rest of the way. And he just about ran me down when I finally did get it all the way done up. Normally he runs away from you when he’s freaking out, but this time he ran to the end of the lead rope, turned around, and ran right at me. I checked under the saddle and it was awfully tight under there, so I pulled the half pad out, and homeboy seemed a bit better.
The next day, though, saw the exact same reaction. And Murray really, really does not usually try to run humans down. He’s very respectful in his panicking and freaking out — he’d much rather stay far, far away from all bipeds, thanks all the same. So I shoved my hands in under the saddle, and back just past his shoulders were two firm spots of flocking that were really quite tight. And when I took the saddle off of him, you could tell that those spots were extra tight even without a girth done up.
So. What do you know. The child has learned to communicate actual problems to me! Or maybe…. I just learned how to listen.
So once again, my horse is proving to me that he’s not the asshole who isn’t listening, I’m the asshole who isn’t listening. And it would be great if he could do it in a more succinct way, but the lessons probably wouldn’t stick quite as hard then.