Monday, February 15, 2010

The Grass Is Always Greener

Horses Are Opportunists

Here's my barn set up. I have a barn with a center aisle and the stalls on either side. Toby and Tucker's stalls are on the east side with a run in roof outside. Chance's stall is on the west side, as an enclosed end of the run in roof on that side of the barn. All the stalls have gates opening into the aisle, and doors opening into the run in sheds. Nice little set up, as far as I am concerned, and nearly all the time the outside doors to the stalls are open so the horses can come and go as they please.

As you may have read in previous posts, I have been known to accidentally leave one of the inside stall gates open now and then allowing a horse--or more to get into the aisle of the barn. This wrecks various levels of havoc, depending on which horse it is. Toby's not bad, Tucker tries to break into the feed room and strews a few blankets about, and Chance the Ripper might do anything to anything that happens to be in the barn.

This is, obviously a source of some kind of entertainment for all. Toby might just come in and stand there, so surely there is nothing in the aisle to lure him in. It's just a matter of principle. The gate is open therefore it must mean something.

When I feed in the morning, I generally do not shut the interior gates until all the little chores are done. Ater all, you'd think that with a feed tub full of nice feed, most horses would simply stay in their stalls to eat.

Not so at Follywoods. This morning, for example, I fed everyone then decided to pick out the stalls while they were eating. I left the barn to dump the wheelbarrow and what did I find when I came back in? Toby was in the aisle eating the hay I'd stacked there and Tucker was in Toby's stall eating Toby's grain. Now it only took a second to sort it all out by my saying, "Tucker, out!! Toby, back in your stall." (My Boys follow verbal directions well--the result of being owned by a talkative English teacher.)

But it struck me as to this peculiarity of horse behavior. Tucker still had grain in his own feed tub. There was no need to eat Toby's. But, nonetheless, as soon as Toby left it unguarded, there was Tucker ready to swoop in. I also have to watch both Tucker and Toby as they will go out of their stalls to reach over the partition in Chance's stall (He has no bars on his stall) to eat from his feed tub before he's finished. As the low man in the herd, he backs away and lets them eat his food.

Have you ever noticed that if you have two horses and you put out two piles of hay, the horses play "Hay musical chairs" or "Hay carousel?" The dominant horse will chase the other horse from one pile, start to eat, and then when the other horse goes to the second pile, number one horse will chase him from that one too. Add another horse to the mix and the dance just gets more complex. If you watch, it doesn't take long to sort out the herd pecking order. The lowest level horse spends more time running from one pile to the next trying to grab a bite while number one horse manages to alway have his head down in the food. The middle horse dominates the poor low man, of course, and in the case of Tucker, will even try now and then to snatch from, the alpha horse's choice selection.

Fortunately here, things have pretty much settled down with all that, so I don't have to put out four piles of hay to assure that all three horses will have enough to eat. I just make sure all three piles are nice and big. Apparently, my Boys have figured out that there's plenty for everyone, so after one or two initial rounds of Hay Carousel, they settle down, each to his own pile. Again, interestingly enough, each horse usually ends up at the same pile each day.

I've also made the mistake of leaving a paddock gate open now and then while I am doing some kind of chore outside. I don't do this if the horses are anywhere in sight--unless I've been extremely careless--but an open gate is a magnet to an opportunistic horse. About a month ago, while the horses were eating grain in their stalls, I went into the paddock with my arms full of hay and didn't quite get the gate relocked. I did close it, but it swung open a few inches. I put the hay out in the paddock and turned back around to see Toby trotting out through the opening onto the back lawn. No biggie again, as the driveway is gated and there was hardly a blade of grass on the frozen lawn to keep him too interested. But Tucker was heading for the opening too and two loose horses causes a frolic which I didn't exactly need.

The open gate was far more attractive than a feed tub of breakfast. It was an opportunity for adventure and perhaps a mouthful or two of dried up winter grass.

I left a bag of used alfalfa cube bags--those plasticy burlap ones--under the fenced off section of the run in shed where I keep the tractor. I thought I'd put them far enough away from the gate so that the horses could not reach them. Nope. The next morning I found the bags off to the side and two of them dragged into the paddock where it appeared a certain Mr. Ripper had been playing with them.

When my friend Donna was doing the stalls for me, she stacked the bedding in the same spot. The first thing I did when I went out later and saw them, was to slide the bales away from the gate. If I hadn't, I would have found ripped up bedding backs and wood shavings all over the place. Donna also fell victim to the "tip the wheelbarrow" trick Chance loves to pull when you are cleaning the stalls. All you have to do is turn your back when he's in the area and he'll grab the wooden handle and over it goes. Opportunity knocked, and Chance simply couldn't resist.

Horses will look for any opportunity to get food or amuse themselves. I'm sure the food part is a natural survival instinct and clearly supports Darwin's theories of survival of the fittest. The lowest horse in the herd is last to eat in the Hay Carousel, so the dominant horses are assured a good diet.

But the amusement part? I think horses enjoy laughing at us.

Addendum side note: Just discovered a new language tidbit. I was reading an article on the Olympics and the author had described the men's downhill race as a "blue riband" event. I paused, confused. I'd always heard, and thought, that a premiere event was known as a "blue ribbon event." (Note, here in the US, blue ribbons are awarded for first place.) Looked it up, and sure enough, the author was correct. "Blue riband" was initially a nautical term which referred to the fastest passage a ship could make. Then it became a reference to anything that was the best....and then, here in the USA, it gradually became changed to "blue ribbon." Apparently, riband is the name for the stripes or ribbons worn on navel badges. So it suits just as well as ribbon and both terms are perfectly acceptable, at least in American English.

The world of language is full of wonders that just never cease.


  1. Too funny! Our boys love "musical hay piles". What is also funny is that my boy Legs (who stands at 16.1) is the low man - totally at the mercy of his 15 hand stable mates. He will look at me like "Moooommmmm!" when they chase him off. I try to encourage him to stand his ground, but he is a lover not a fighter. At least he can boss the mini donkey around (though he chooses not to do that much either and would just rather share - Zach is not afraid of him either!).

  2. Anonymous10:43 AM

    Our variant is "ring around the round bale" - it's good they do this as otherwise none of them would get much exercise in the winter! Out littlest mare (Dawn) is the big boss in the mare dry lot. When we had more mares at our barn, we had to have two round bales in their dry lot because the two dominant mares (Lily and Dawn) would claim an entire bale for themselves, at least until they felt they'd had enough to eat.

  3. Our horses do the same thing with the hay piles or hay nets. Nobody is content to just eat their own they have to chase others away and make it more interesting.

    I know for sure that horses have a sense of humor. We have a few in the barn but Nate is especially the 'class clown'. All I can say is if you ever bend over in front of him he will either give you an atomic wedgie or push you over with his nose. I love these guys.

  4. Anonymous3:00 PM

    Appreciate the note about "blue riband" ...never would have imagined that origin...just assumed it was a misspelling. Even now it's coming up as such--must not be in spellcheck!

  5. Grass is greener Jean!


  6. Anonymous5:30 AM

    nice post. thanks.