Yesterday, Curly and Zelda staged a jailbreak, knocking down the electric fence and wandering through some thick brush. When the ground is frozen the electric fence doesn’t work that well, and with winter blankets to protect them, I doubt they felt much of anything. Unfortunately, Curly did not emerge unscathed. She managed to slice her right hind leg to the point where she needed an emergency vet call and a trip to the clinic where the wound can be properly cared for (we have only a run-in shed and Curly’s owner is currently out of the country).
Curly has been part of the co-op for 12 years and Zelda’s best friend for six years. The two of them have been inseparable, grooming each other, hanging out together and, with Freedom, creating their own herd. When she left with the vet yesterday, Freedom and Zelda were inconsolable. They called to her for a long time — in fact, every time someone walked down the trail next to the pastures, they watched attentively and whinnied. Freedom even refused to eat his dinner (he’s very attached to his girls).
Watching their distress made me reflect on the bond they’ve created, and how so many horses never have that herd experience. Before joining the co-op, about 19 years ago, I kept horses at a number of boarding facilities, usually for a couple of years. Then, I’d pack up my horse and move on, never giving much thought to the bonds they made with their pasture mates.
I can’t even remember if my Trakehner had a particular friend at the last commercial barn. Certainly, he bonded with Freedom. The two of them played hard — rearing up, racing around, pulling on each other’s blankets. When Kroni suffered an aneurysm, and we took him to Tufts via horse ambulance, we had to sedate Freedom. For more than a week after Kroni left, I couldn’t get Freedom to take a step inside the barn. It was a couple of weeks before he settled down again and forged new horse friendships. Obviously, horses can move on but I’ve also seen that some horses form stronger bonds with some of their pasture mates than others. They have best friends in addition to having companions.
It’s a shame that so many horses are not kept in ways that support these social bonds. Many horses get turned out alone, for fear they will get injured. People move barns and horses get sold — let’s not forget that horses form bonds with their humans, too. Very rarely do people sell or give away their dog or cat, and yet horses may have multiple owners in their lifetimes. This can be traumatic for the animal. We adopted an adult cat this past year, who had been fostered in a home for a couple of years. This poor boy had no idea why he was being separated from the human he loved. He spent the first two weeks hiding in the corner of a room, screwing his eyes shut when you picked him up, probably hoping that he could be transported “home.” He’s fine now, and the most loving (and loved) cat you can imagine, but the transition was tough on him.
Horses, of course, are different from dogs and cats. Part of it is the expense. It’s not always feasible to keep a horse, especially if it doesn’t show an aptitude for a discipline that the rider wants to pursue, or becomes injured. Retiring your horse often means forgoing your ability to buy another horse — or stepping down your expectations to be competitive in your chosen sport. After you buy a new horse there’s a period of adjustment where you forge the relationship and trust that makes it possible to ride out
The vet expects Curly to be at the clinic for up to two weeks. While Zelda and Freedom were more settled today, I’m sure they still wonder where she is and will be relieved when they have her safely back in the herd. I have no idea how Freedom will react when I take Zelda out to ride. I’m not sure he can deal with another missing mare right now, at least not without a cocktail.
In the meantime, I’m reinforcing fences and looking for electric tape that holds a charge even when the ground is frozen (I believe that HorseGuard makes some, but am open to suggestions).
Do your horses live in a stable herd? Have a best friend?