Saturday, January 8, 2011

Horses Have Their Rhythms

When I got back from the barn this morning after chores the temperature was up to 11F with bright sun, but with a sharp wind making for a windchill of -2F (that's -19C for you C people).  The horses were out enjoying the round bales.  One of the things I enjoy about picking Pie's paddock, even in this cold, is that I get to watch the horses and think a bit in a sort of meditative way.  It's really lovely, although I admit my hands were getting a bit cold by the time I was done.

I'm thinking about some things, which may emerge as posts.  One thing I've been thinking about is how horses, if allowing to have a say, establish rhythms in their lives.  We have our own rhythms, too, although they're sometimes obscured by technology or the requirements of jobs and school.  I love the rhythms that horses have - they connect me to the seasons and also to the innate peace and calmness that is the life of a happy horse.  I feel a great connection to the natural world when I am in the company of horses - that's one of the gifts they give me every day.

As I watch the horses - I often have the chance to observe them being themselves at different times of the day (that's one of the main blessings of my current life) - they have their rhythms.  Some of these rhythms are natural ones, and others reflect their fitting into the human order of things.  They get fed in the morning and the evening - hay and pellets.  They go to turnout and come in from turnout.  They eat, and then they take breaks to rest and digest - sometimes standing together in the sun and sometimes lying down.  Dawn is famous for her naps - she takes several a day, lying down if conditions permit.  She often takes one a couple of hours after turnout, another at noontime and a third before bring-in time.   When the horses are in dry lot, she'll sleep in the hay around the round bale, out of the wind. She's also a sound sleeper in her stall, often lying down.

Running around usually occurs first thing in the morning at turnout time - I think of it sometimes as the horses "reclaiming" their space and inhabiting the space with the motion of their bodies, filling it with their presence.  Serious grooming time often happens at turnout time, too, even before eating - this socialization is so important to horses and one reason why group turnout is so good for their emotional and mental health.  But there's a rhythm to grooming - both the rhythm of the teeth and head/neck motions, and the way the two horses move together to cover the space of each other's bodies - it's a dance with subtle signals.  There's also an order - certain pairs groom first, and then one of the horses may go on to groom a third horse, but it almost always happens in the same sequence.  Lily and Maisie often spent up to 20 minutes each morning at turnout grooming each other, before even taking one bite of grass.

Play time (for the geldings - the mares rarely play in this way) often happens mid-morning, after a good period of eating hay.  There are usual play partners - Pie has become of our most playful geldings, and will often engage in vigorous "bitey-face" play with Scout and sometimes Fritz, and even Fred once in a while when he's having a good day.  This involves a lot of mock-stallion behaviors - biting faces, necks and front legs, rearing and chest-pushing.  This behavior also is often repeated at bring-in time if the horses are waiting at the gate.

The horses have a rhythm for their drinking, too.  In the dry lot, sometimes horses will go as pairs to the tank to drink from time to time.  Scout and Pie frequently go together and drink from the trough at the same time. In the pastures - they're 5 or 6 acres and the tanks are at the very front - it's usual to see a noontime ritual in the mares' pasture of the lead mare leading the herd, single file, for a drink at the trough.  When they're done - drinking in order - they go back out to the farther reaches of the pasture in the same way.

And all of this happens within the larger rhythm of the seasons, and the changes in the light, leading to changes in the horses' metabolisms and their eating and sleeping patterns.  I love the changes in their coats, including in texture and color, with the seasons.  The beginnings of shedding summer coats in mid-summer, followed by the growth of the heavy winter coats, then shedding again usually starting towards the end of January into early February, then the growth of the sleek summer coats, then the cycle all over again.  And each horse has its own personal schedule for this - there's a specific order - one horse will always start shedding before another one.

And there's the rhythm of the sky and the weather, which I love and I expect the horses do too, as long as they're well-fed and can keep warm with shelter and blankets if needed.  Right now it's dark in the morning when I go to the barn to do chores, with the winter constellations swinging overhead and sometimes a planet or two blazing in the sky.  Then the dawn begins, perfect and yet different each day.  One of my favorite things is walking back to the barn from feeding Pie his breakfast and seeing the golden light from the windows and door shining into the dark.

So many of these behaviors - grooming, eating, resting as part of the herd, drinking, sleeping, running, playing - are natural behaviors that horses engage in with their own rhythms and timing.  Horses that have the chance to do these behaviors, with their own rhythms, with other horses, are, I think, much happier emotionally and mentally, and, by being allowed to be horses, can carry some of the security of these rhythms into their work with humans.

I think there's even a carryover of this way of thinking into riding.  Sometimes people will say "my horse's trot isn't rhythmical" or "my horse can't do a lead change properly".  Take a look at the horse moving in the pasture, and more often than not you'll discover that the horse has lovely, purposeful rhythm at all gaits and can do flying lead changes in both directions without any problem (a horse that lacks rhythm when moving at liberty or that cannot do lead changes without a rider may have physical issues that need addressing).  If we can learn to communicate to our horses what we want them to do, and then stay out of their way by riding in a balanced position with the softest of connections, it can be amazing to see what they can do for us.

I think picking poo in the freezing cold clarifies my mind! My next post on these series of thoughts, or mediations if you will, will probably be on teaching horses "virtues" rather than to do or not do certain actions.  Enjoy your January day, and may it include horses!

24 comments:

  1. This is a particularly lovely post :)

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  2. Great post and one I relate to. Before my surgery (and after I get over this), my favorite time was/is morning feeding. I also get out before dawn. Our horses are out 2/47 and are usually in the back of our lot when I open the door from our house. I love to see them look up and then they drop their heads and start to walk slowly to their stalls. Sometimes they'll stop and greet me and other times walk right into their stalls. Sugar walks into the one closest to the tack room and Morgunn goes into the furthest away.

    It's always quiet at that time of the morning. Occasionally I'll hear a donkey bray at a place about a mile away. Or, I'll hear the Sandhill Cranes chattering away down by the river. But other than that there's a peace that time of morning that I love.

    Thanks for the great post.

    Regards, Dan

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  3. What a great post Kate! I love the way you described their rhythms. I also find great joy in simply caring for, and observing interactions. When I do, it's the highlight of my day.

    Side note; love your new photo header!

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  4. Lovely post! I, too, love time in the pasture mucking. It's my best and most productive thinking time although much of it is more of an unconscious drinking in of the horses and the seasons.

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  5. This year I found a good reason why most horses cannot find a good rhythm when riding. First and foremost would be the rider does not spend enough time at the gaits so the horse is even a bit amped up and not going to be relaxed. I think even though the dressage pyramid says otherwise, rhythm and relaxation come together and you cannot have both without relaxation (aka the horse being comfortable in his skin with you on his back). 5 minutes worth of canter/lope work is not going to make your horse think anything of slowing down which is what a good majority of riders do. Hes gonna take off like a rocket every time and have a fast, uneven stride. I like to spend 15-20 or more minutes at any single gait in either direction. I want the horse to figure on his own time he needs to relax because theres more work ahead. Horses are not dumb creatures and they want to conserve energy as best as they can. I found spending lots of time consistently at a gait and waiting until the horse was slower, more relaxed and not speeding around was when I would ride just a little more before asking for a downward transition. Foundation rides for horses when I ride have lots of that in them that way for the rest of their riding career they pick up a nice, even gait knowing there may be a good few solid minutes of one gait. This is part of what I talked about in my resolution post, becoming a worker, not just a rider where I could improve upon the horses way of going, not just going through his or her paces and what he knew.

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  6. Such a beautiful post....your love for these animals is obvious. Your and their daily lives read like a poem. There is certainly something soothing about cleaning a stall and grooming these beautiful animals. What they do for us is amazing.

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  7. I agree that horses have rhythm to their life. Our herd grooms in the morning after turnout too. Certain pairs groom and then there's an order to who gets a drink first. They all seem to wait for the signal of one horse to follow to the back turnout fields.

    When the rhythm is off the whole herd is affected. I've witnessed this happening last week when Dusty refused to be caught, or fed and wouldn't come into the barn for two nights. The entire herd was upset. There is an order to their universe and when it's disrupted everything is askew until the rhythm is restored.

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  8. Lovely "poo"-thoughts, Kate. ;) Yes, I agree with you whole-heartedly--I think horses are happiest when allowed their own rhythms--and these rhythms change from day to day, I've noticed. When I came into the barn this morning, all the horses were out except Shadow--he was lying in his stall. I thought, COLIC--ahhhhh! But it wasn't colic at all. We had a very cold night last night and Shadow probably spent the evening eating and wasn't hungry this morning. Where usually he's out and about at sunrise--this morning he decided to sleep in.

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  9. You know I just like you and really appreciate the thoughtfulness of your posts.

    I too love the rythmns of horses, all animals, me included, and nature. Not very many people really understand that they even exist. Thanks for talking about it.

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  10. I thought of Rudof Steiner whole I was reading your post. He insisted that rhythm is the carrier of life. In nature, it is true, there is rhythm everywhere.
    When I watch horses in the pasture, one of the things that never ceases to amaze me is how they find themselves, accept or want to change their position in the pecking order. My horse, who I'd think would be at the top, is always closer to the bottom. But instead of going with it, she's always trying to jostle her way up higher. As a result, she's always on guard and is never totally relaxing. On the trail, it makes a very big difference in how pleasurable my ride is if we are riding with a horse who is higher than her, or one she is constantly trying to dominate!

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  11. What a gorgeous post and all the more gorgeous because you were able to think lovely thought while picking up poo. Oh and thanks so much for the temperature conversion. I get a bit lost when away from celcius.
    My poo picking up takes place in 28C at the moment and I'm not complaining as its nice to have the sun with the hay fields all freshly cut and smelling sweet

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  12. I so enjoyed this post! Your writing is very expressive and I could picture your horses going through their daily rituals. Thanks!

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  13. What lovely, deep thoughts. I, too, take Zen pleasure in simple, repetitive tasks.

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  14. Love your post Kate! It is what I can't wait to observe on a daily basis when we have my boy at home some day. I only see his rhythms in short time spans at different times of the day on different days. But when I'm there I just love to stand at the pasture gate and watch him interact with his herd mates, and just go about his business of being a horse. They are such wonderful beings to just observe.
    MyBoyG aka "the other Kate"

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  15. I love watching horses just be horses out in the field. Their interactions fascinate me.

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  16. Another good post. I particularly like the idea of horses turned out together just getting to be horses. So many times that's not the case--individual turnout, stall confinement, etc. Herd animals need the herd.

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  17. This post really struck a chord with me as you verbalized so much of what I watch and think about every day. One of your best posts.

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  18. what a great post ( as most of yours are...) - you are so right about the routines and seasons...

    I wish I had more time to just sit and observe the routines of my horse and his pasture mates. That is one of the downsides of boarding.

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  19. Good post, thanks for the insightful read.

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  20. Picking poo is a reflective time for me as well. I suppose meditative even.

    It stands to reason with horses being more comfortable with a routine schedule in their lives with humans that they must have a schedule or rhythm to their lives if left to their own devices.

    Here I see that the patterns of some horses are very much the same as others even if they are not exposed to one another. That makes me think there could be a genetic link to those behaviors. ie Legs and most of his babies lay down and spread out their hay in front of them to eat their morning meal. They also nap for about the same time at about 11 each day.

    Horse behaviors are just so darn interesting I could spend the whole day watching. Too bad my schedule won't allow that.

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  21. I've often looked at my horses doing something that we'll eventually get to in our training, and think, if I could just communicate to them that I want that out of them, we'll be doing great. Only time will tell :)

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  22. One of the things I enjoyed most when starting to work for myself was being able to watch the rhythms of the horses throughout the day. We converted the biggest bedroom at the back of the house to a home office looking out on them and I never tire of watching them when they're home. It feels empty when they aren't here.
    This was a beautiful post. I can almost feel your contentment and connection to the animals.

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  23. Kate, Lovely, insightful post! So many wonderful rhythms to observe and appreciate, and you have described them all so beautifully! Thank you. I, too, enjoy watching Buckshot and his pasturemate in their patterns and rituals, and I try to be respectful of them when I am in the pasture. If he is eating his post-breakast hay, I greet him, stroke his neck and tell him to take his time eating his hay. Then, when he has had enough hay for the moment, he routinely wanders over to one particular part of his pasture, and nibbles there. Very peaceful rituals. Peaceful to him, and peaceful to me as I observe.

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  24. Such a beautiful post. Filled me with a calm and peacefulness.

    ~Lisa

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