Thursday, July 29, 2021

Speaking Horse

The experience I had the other night with Cowgirl and Epona, her first night back, got me thinking about how much we understand what our horses say. I translated the moment into human language, based upon what I heard from their whinnies, and how they responded to the whinnies. Each was short, and soft:

Epona: "I'm okay."

Cowgirl: "I'm here." 

Each horse was comforted by the other, and each remained calm. I cried tears of happiness to be part of that moment and know what it meant, and how deeply each felt it. I was allowed to be a temporary conduit between them. If not that, at least a witness.

I fully understand that it is a bit of anthropomorphizing on my part, but it's not far off from what they were communicating to each other in that moment. It was a rare glimpse into our shared communication styles However, there is much that remains a mystery to me about how they communicate, and I often miss signals I should have received--and get the interpretation too late. 

I was leading Tweed away from the herd yesterday, when he pulled back suddenly, and tried to break away to go back to them. He has only ever done that once before, on one of our long walks away from the herd. I'm always ready for it, but I wasn't wearing gloves, so I did get a teensy burning sensation on my palm. If I hadn't been prepared, it was one of those moments that could have ripped my hand off. I got to his side quickly, setting him off balance, brought him back to me, patted his neck, and proceeded to walk him to his stall.

What did I miss? I think it's safe to guess I missed a lot of signs leading up to it. I've been too singularly focused on Epona and Cowgirl, and not tuning into the rest of the herd.

Last night, I went to work with him at dusk--when it had cooled down. He was grumpy. We did what we needed to do, on the ground, and then I groomed him and returned him to his stall. At that point, I was super tuned into him. I noticed his eyes were hard--a look of worry. Then, I saw that his manure was loose--a possible sign of stress. I responded by giving him Pro-bios, spending time in his stall comforting him, and bringing Foxy into the barn, in the stall next to him, said goodnight, and hoped for the best.

This morning, he was a happier horse, and his manure was forming again. I locked up Cowgirl, who we're trying to keep out of sight of Epona, and let him back out with the herd.

Remember that study a few years ago about horse expressions, and how horses share more expressions with humans than even dogs do? That's pretty amazing. And it gives us a lot to work with when trying to 'Speak Horse.'

I will say this, the few people I know who are exceptionally good at 'speaking horse,' my trainer Sarah, for one, are more quickly accepted by horses. I'm certain our horses take comfort when we begin to understand what they're saying. It reminds me of human toddlers who haven't developed language, but are trying to make their needs clear. Misunderstanding leads to many a tantrum.

I am constantly trying to learn about their language, to earn their trust, and to help them before it's too big, or too late, but it's a slow process. Even when we get it right, the corresponding action--what do we do to address what we see--is equally complicated. Sometimes, when we think we're helping, we're hurting. 

And this brings me to the issue of raising an 'orphan foal.' The best of us at 'speaking horse' are just not that good at it. We are no replacement for an actual horse. What we see as being mean, can actual be a comfort to a foal. What we see as being loving, can actually make them insecure. 

I had several auditions for Epona's caretaker yesterday--Cowboy, Tumbleweed, and Leah. By the end of the day, I circled back to Cowboy, because 1/ Tweed isn't ready to be separated from the herd, and it caused him more stress and 2/ Cowboy likes to be separated from the herd, and he loves having his own stall and lots of food. Leah didn't take much interest in Epona, and was happy to be put back out. She may not want to intrude on the Cowgirl / Epona connection. 

And here is where it gets weird--anthropomorphizing alert!--I had a talk with Cowboy about being Epona's caregiver. I don't know why, but it just seemed right. He was staring at me, and I felt like talking, so we had a conversation about how he is the perfect guy for the job. He'll get his stall, and his food, and a sweet little companion who needs him. I told him that as an orphan foal himself, he might sympathize with little Epona missing her mama. And I went on and on, like that, with his full attention, and I think, understanding. The tone. The eyes. The intention. It sometimes all comes together in our communication and understanding. After all, if we can understand them, why is it hard to believe they can understand us, too?

At any rate, they spent the night next to each other again, and I saw them being very sweet to each other through the bars of their enclosures. Maybe I'm misreading it, or maybe not. Time will tell.  But I kinda think Cowboy agreed to the terms of  his new employment.


  1. I love this. I’m not going to lie- my heart broke a bit for Cowgirl and Epona. Even though I know you were doing exactly the right thing. I also believe that Cowboy understood you.

    1. He did good! But she wasn’t eating her pellets this morning, even after I removed they hay, so I did a bad thing and brought mama by her stall. Well, it got her up eating, so I guess it wasn’t so bad. After she drank water and ate some milk pellets, I brought Cowgirl into the stall next to her, and now they’re fully separated but both are eating hay on their respective sides. I’m going to see what happens.

  2. I think you are pretty much in tune with your horses, but we all let our own agenda and worries get in the way of true communication. I have a friend who "talks" to animals and I often ask her advice. She's usually right.

    1. You’re right, it can get very confusing for lots of reasons. That’s great that you have a resource like that. It might help having outside perspective, too. I have no doubt Cowboy understood, agreed, and did the job I asked of him, but there is the other element of Epona, and her little spirit. I was reading depression from her today, and that’s why I brought mama over, against the advice. She definitely pepped up. I just went out and held her pellet bucket in my lap, and she ate a lot of them, even with Cowgirl nearby watching. I had added a little water to make them softer. I’ll keep doing that all day and see if she can be by mom and still eat. If she can, that will probably be our best scenario, but removing Cowgirl for another horse here and there, to prepare her to be in a turnout with one soon. And that definitely can’t be Cowgirl. This is such a creative process, and draws on so many variables!

    2. One of the greatest attributes of true horsemanship is being able to adjust, even minutely, to changing circumstances.

  3. Interesting. I definitely don't speak horse. Ownership/observation opportunities came late in life for me. That is some article you linked. I bookmarked to revisit and try to absorb better. That is a lot of big words and info for my morning brain fog lol.

    I still think Cowboys first reaction could be in part due to where your attention has been focused (aka jealous). For us, when Brad is choosing to ride Cierra it always goes better when he talks to Nemo first and gives him a bit of love/reassurance. Nemo is a very jealous horse when it comes to his heart human. Also, I wondered if Tumbleweed wasn't a tad too young for the full time nanny job. No doubt he has good things to offer up to Epona, but a younger mind might not know what to do with inquiries. So to speak. Maybe that part is innate? Probably. One thing I do know, you are a very very in tune horse owner and know your horses best. Most medical people's advice come from just that, the medical side of situations. While it is wise to head that advice, it doesn't cover all aspects. Like mental/heart comfort. Based on your observations, reintroducing Cowgirl where she can be close to Epona proved to be helpful. I am learning a lot.

    1. I think you’re right about Cowboy. In my haste some days, he’d stop moving for me and just look into my eyes, like hey, do you still see me? When I talked to him, he seemed to absorb every word and find comfort. After a little time with Cowgirl yesterday, the benefits started to wane and Epona got frustrated and started stomping. So, I rolled with it and put Cowboy back beside her, mama out, and she was able to rest a little and woke with a big appetite. Oddly enough, my empty, open hands came to use again, and I filled them with her pellets. She ate every bit and licked my palms. I think the skin to skin sensation is still very important to her. I don’t think it’s a good long term thing, but just to get her over this ten day transition, it’s probably fine. She and Cowboy spent a lot of time standing next to each other, which is even more than Cowgirl did for her. His eye has become very soft to her. If I need mama again, I won’t hesitate to get her. Today and tomorrow will be the worst days-temps in the 100’s again, and then we drop to the 80’s.

      It sounds like you and Brad are very good at speaking horse. Just the fact that you are trying to talk them through things, as you see them happening. Living with horses sometimes gives too much feedback, whereas, short, concentrated trips to a barn really focus your attention, and you have fresh eyes. Just your understanding of Cowboy shows you speak more fluently than you think!

  4. I think you "speak horse" very well. There's a level of communication that we all use interacting with our horses. Cowboy did his job when you asked him to the best of his ability. It seems the stress level of Cowgirl and Epona went down when they could be near each other and neither was depressed anymore. So I really think that was the best option. As you go along and try different things with all the horses the best solution will show itself. Probably nothing is going to be a perfect fit but it will most likely be the best it can be for the circumstances. As Epona matures and grows she will adapt to her situation and I'm sure she'll be just fine. She's had a rough start to her life but she's taken on all the challenges like a little trooper. I'm sure all will work out in the end, in the meantime you're doing all you can to make her life and all your horses lives the best they can be. Hang in there.

    1. Thank you. Yes, this entire situation has been about adapting. I prefer life to have linear answers, but with horses, that is not always the case. I feel like I’m zig-zagging through the days right now! The whole herd seems invested in little Epona, having watched her birth and growth and struggles. I see us as a team in her care. If this new antibiotic works as it should, we should see some of her strength returning soon. I haven’t seen any aspiration of water or food with this new system.


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