Our 17-acre Southern Vermont property provides our horses with several grazing areas, one of which takes them up to what we refer to as the “back pasture”. The pathway leads along a brook, over a bridge, up a little rise and through the gate.
Over the past 7 years their ritual has been to graze for several hours, head back to the barn for water and brief respite, and return to grazing until being called in for dinner. Scout is the herd leader and in general dictates their schedule, which they dutifully follow.
This past summer something changed. They would follow me up to the back pasture only to return to the barn within a half hour or so. Then they would stand around in the shelters for hours. Not normal behavior! I would go out, walk back up, they would follow me, graze for a bit or sometimes not even at all and head back to the barn. I searched the field multiple times never finding any reason for their behavior.
In October we adopted an 8-month old rescue dog whom we named Daisy. Life as we knew it was upended. This wonderful, happy, jubilant puppy had a lot of learning to do, especially around the horses. Apparently, they were just big dogs to her and when in their presence it was “game on!” This caused us to spend a lot of quiet, on-leash training time, observing and sharing space with the horses. One day Daisy and I headed up yet again to the back pasture, with the herd at our heels. They had been turned out after am feeding and as was their new normal, they had returned and were just hanging out.
Typically, I just open the gate and leave. On this day I decided to walk Daisy out into the field for some quiet horse time. Scout did something he had never done before. He walked beside us, even when all the others raced to the apple trees. I stopped, trying to convince Daisy that running with the herd wasn’t acceptable behavior and Scout stopped with us. Then we walked a bit and he walked along, stopping when we stopped. It was clear that he wanted something from me. He didn’t drop his head to graze, nor did he go off to eat apples. He just stood. He would look at me, look around, and look at me again. I decided that I really needed to slow down and be present with him. He was trying to communicate something to me. He was asking me if it was safe and showing me his concerns. I needed to be what Horse Speak© refers to as the “sentry” horse and mimic what a sentry horse does. I needed to “blow away the boogeyman” and check the environment.
When Scout looked in one direction I would look there too, blowing out one short, audible breath, like blowing out a big candle. In Horse Speak this is called the “Sentry” breath. I did that in all directions and then headed out with Daisy to check the environment. When entering a new space, a horse will walk the boundary, investigating to see how it feels and if it seems safe. Daisy and I walked the entire perimeter of this 2 ½ acre field, kicking the posts, tapping the trees, scanning the horizon, throwing sticks, etc. Scout stood rooted to the exact spot where we left him, just watching. He did not graze, nor did he leave. He just followed us with his eyes. I circled back to him after completing the loop to check in. He brought his muzzle around to my softly closed fist and we both took a breath. I assured him that all was safe, and as we walked away he rejoined the herd.
A few hours later they all came down for water, rested a bit and went back up to graze. We had to call them down at 6:30 for night chores, which was a first since Spring. Ever since that day their behavior pattern returned to normal, grazing until called.
Feeling safe is one of the things that horses value most. Acknowledging their concerns and having the ability to show them you have their back can change everything. These techniques work because we are simply mimicking what they do with and for each other back to them in their own language.
To learn more about deepening your understanding and improving the connection you share with horses visit www.heidipotter.com and click on “Horse Speak”. Your horse will LOVE you for it!