BY DEBORAH JANE NICHOLAS
Those were the words the livery used to inform me that her horse could not be part of a herd. This horse could not have a field mate. There would be no swishing tail to turn and face during the summer to deter the flies from bothering her eyes, or a restful sleep while the other horses stood guard looking out for danger. No mutual grooming would ever occur, and there would be no comfort from having a leader, or being the leader. This particular horse could not have a field mate because, in her words, her horse would kill other horses. While I have witnessed catastrophic injuries caused by a well-aimed kick resulting in necessary euthanasia, I have yet to see a domesticated horse actively attempt to kill another horse, and to display the same psychopathic behaviour consistently in every herd, over many years.
This would be a rogue, unhinged animal and undoubtedly have come to my attention long before now, simply because this behaviour would be highly unusual. Out of the park, from another planet…unusual. Of course wild stallions are going to fight, they are going to want to keep their mares, or even steal other stallions’ mares. This can only be done by showing the mares they are stronger, healthier and more powerful. A domesticated stallion could undoubtedly display similar behaviour if turned out within a mixed herd. But this is highly unlikely to occur unless all the other liveries are happy for their mares to be impregnated. The geldings are also likely to easily give up the leadership status to the stallion as he has more incentive to fight, and with brutal intensity.
But this livery did not own a stallion, a rig, or even a dominant gelding. In fact she owned an overweight cob, which was a mare. Now if this mare were a rogue, an equine psychopath, or even an animal with a behaviour-changing brain tumour that caused it to want to kill its own kind, then this behaviour would be observed when around any horse the majority of the time. The owner would occasionally hack out with other horses, and also tie the horse up on the yard to groom, muck out, tack-up and for farrier attendance. Of all the times I saw this horse either ridden out, or on the yard, I could see no dangerous, unstable or anti-social behaviour towards other horses. From my observations this horse was completely normal.
I have three theories why this livery would describe her horse as a horse killer, the first being she has misunderstood dominant behaviour within the herd. Horses need to establish herd hierarchy as naturally as you or I need to breathe oxygen. If she had witnessed her horse attempting to be dominant and to be the leader, then perhaps all the kicking, chasing, biting and squealing worried her. Yet if the horse could not have established dominance, then it would have been equally as happy to be led by a stronger horse. This is the way horses work, it’s natural.
If a horse is regularly seen to be driving a particular horse away this is often mistaken as bullying. But it’s the second horse that’s pushing the buttons of the ‘bully’, it’s the second horse that is also being dominant. If this second horse had accepted the first horse was the leader, it wouldn’t bother instigating a confrontation in the first place. Herd dynamics can change daily, weekly, even yearly, and owners need to be careful in what they think they are seeing. Furthermore the horse that is regarded as bolshie or the one to watch is the absolute ideal leader that the herd wants. Well-meaning owners that then take that dominant horse away from the herd and give it individual turn-out because it’s dangerous are doing more harm than good. Removing a strong dominant leader will unsettle the entire herd because they essentially lose their strongest horse.
Horses do not understand they are safe simply because they are contained within post and rail, wearing a rug, and being in a stable at night.
My second theory is that she was protecting her horse from injury that may occur from kicking, biting and fighting. I can begrudgingly accept that if a horse is worth several million pounds then there may be an episode of time in its life where it needs to be wrapped in cotton wool. Although one cannot put a price on love, if we do in fact love them, keeping them isolated isn’t a great way of showing it.
I had to pass this paddock on a daily basis to reach my own horse’s field. I would consistently see at least two empty feed buckets in there. Empty feed buckets basically mean the owner didn’t bother to wait until the horse had finished eating. So my third theory is that the owner wanted individual turn-out simply to make life easier for herself. To give a horse hard feed its obviously necessary to do it away from a field of horses, unless you want to instigate a kicking match and risk getting trampled.
When I proposed putting my own horse in her field to at least give her horse a companion, and pointed out I really didn’t believe her horse was a murderous equine version of Hannibal Lecter, she shuffled her feet and looked uncomfortable. She finally answered that she was concerned my horse might get hurt. I reassured her that I could accept that, after all, that’s nature. But no, she was sticking to her guns, and wanted her own paddock. So I’m strongly leaning towards my third theory. The horse owner is lazy, she wants to feed her horse in the field rather than let it live in a herd, and take extra time to bother putting a head-collar on to remove the horse.
Owners that want to make life easier for themselves either because of laziness, or lack of time, or both, to the detriment of their horses physical and mental health, should not own them. They should consider paying extra to have the yard owner do the chores when circumstances dictate they are unable to.
Images: By kind permission of Gary Odell