Horses, Hurricanes And Instinct

Dec 12, 2016 - 8:50 AM

Our columnist considers some of the amazing abilities our horses demonstrate.

Many years ago, there was a hurricane by the name of Gloria that raged across Long Island, N.Y., with a strength of Category 4, a force to be reckoned with! I hadn’t lived in the United States long enough to experience such an event—or any of our interesting U.S. varieties of weather—and I had no real feeling for what awaited us.

The people in the know diligently prepared for the storm, while I tried to figure out what to do with the horses at our Knoll Farm. My husband and I decided the safest place for the animals was our very sturdy former cow barn, but we had more horses than this one barn could house. After some deliberation, we decided to double up and put a couple of horses that might get along together in the same box stalls. But we weren’t sure whether this would be protective or cause more trouble.

When the hurricane arrived, it delivered a direct hit to the middle of the island, which is a long and narrow strip easy for the winds to sweep across. We had no idea how the animals would react, and we settled in to watch over them.

About 24 hours before the storm arrived, it was obvious the horses were aware of an impending change. They became increasingly lethargic as the hours went by. When the rains started, they turned their tails to the wind, dropped their heads and went into a semi-coma. Instead of becoming excited and nervous, they did just the opposite, not caring at all about their crowded conditions or strangely boarded-up barn. At the peak of the storm, the horses became so quiet it was almost spooky. Peeking out between the boards nailed over the windows, I witnessed hundred-year-old oak trees with huge trunks bending parallel to the ground and snapping like matchsticks or uprooting, leaving craters in the ground.

Our cats and dogs, several of which didn’t see eye to eye on an everyday basis, had assembled in the corner of the barn with the thickest walls. There they lay in a heap on top of each other in a deep sleep. What was fascinating to me was the way the horses and pets all knew what was coming, prepared for it by putting themselves in the safest position possible, and then put their minds on hold.

After hours of ferociously whipping winds, there were perhaps 30 minutes of sudden, complete and utter stillness. The eye of the hurricane. While people could be fooled into thinking the storm had passed, the animals knew better. I tiptoed out into the eerie silence and sunshine but quickly returned to the barn when the rainclouds moved back in, and the wind picked back up.

The horses knew the storm had a second chapter, and they never budged. When the final part of the hurricane was over, they slowly came alive, started to snort, look for something to eat, and pawed, eager to go out. It was easy to see how the instincts and awareness of the horses and the other animals can often outshine our own. Without weather reports to warn us we would have been clueless, and even those are incorrect a good portion of the time!

When we were “promised” a similar storm in Florida in October, I remembered how the horses behaved, and we watched for the signs. Lucky for us, Matthew wasn’t as devastating as had been predicted.

Amazing Instincts

I observed another example of how horses learn to cope a number of years ago when I gave a clinic for participants in the Samsung Cup (now FEI Challenge) in Taiwan. After about two weeks of daily work, we planned to move three of our horses from the barn outside of Taipei to a military base in Tai Chung, where the competition was to take place. It meant a couple of hours of transport up the mountains.

The day of departure, I was waiting for the transport to arrive, checking down the road for a sign of a trailer or horse box. The horses were led out of the barn, decked out as if dressed to joust, hoods and all, but no transport was in evidence, so I asked when it would arrive.

“Oh, it’s over there,” said the head rider at the barn and pointed to a pickup truck with high sides attached to the bed. I took a dim view of the arrangement but looked around for a loading ramp.

“No need,” said the leader and backed the ramp up to the bottom of a little hill. Between the bed of the pickup and the top of the knoll was a sizable gap, which would require the horses to jump onto the truck. Our three horses to be shipped included one Thoroughbred stallion off the Hong Kong race track, a gelding of undecided parentage, and a big Hanoverian mare imported from Germany.

As I looked over the arrangement, I thought to myself, “Well, they can probably scare the stallion into leaping aboard, and the gelding can perhaps be intimidated to follow course, but in NO WAY will that big mare lower herself to this level.”

Totally wrong. Each horse hopped on board without hesitation, slid into place and stood stock still. I fully expected the mare and stallion to either develop a romance or start a fight, but all three horses remained like slightly swaying statues for the entire trip in a porridge of stop-and-go traffic. When we arrived, they politely scrambled off onto the tarmac at the destination, with sparks flying from their shoes.

No horses I have seen anywhere else would have dealt with these requirements in such a matter-of-fact way, as if they instinctively knew there were no options, and their best bet was to just accept the situation and go with it. Needless to say, they were all sound and fit to compete, another small miracle!

Tuned In

Something we’ve all observed in our dogs also occurs at times on a horse: If you’re in a rush or in a bad mood, the horse picks it up and tends to become irritable and upset. Adversely, if you are truly sad or in pain, even a horse that is not normally generous can become sweet and willing. It has hit me many times how they can immediately tune in to your mood and tell the difference between fear, which usually makes the horse fearful too, unfair aggressiveness, which they will resist, and sadness or helplessness, which they will try to dampen and support.

I recently had a hip replacement, and naturally my biggest fear was to be able to ride properly again. Since my “Dance” can be a little full of himself, I started back on a steadier model. But of course I could not stay off my favorite for as long as prescribed, and with trepidations I soon climbed on board. He immediately sensed the unfamiliar tension in me and for a while proceeded with caution and something almost akin to concern.

I’ve seen that happen when we had school horses as well. The same horse that would gladly buck and play with a competent rider would simmer down and calmly carry one of our disabled riders as if he were an egg about to break.

Have you ever looked at a horse in your barn and thought or said to yourself, “I am going to sell that one”? Don’t be surprised if said horse turns on a stellar performance to change your mind the very next ride! Or, conversely, a horse you think should sell himself to any client reverts to a monster while you’re showing him to his prospective owner, telling you this is not his rider of choice. And then we have the horse that is not normally an extrovert turning on previously untapped charm when he likes a rider who tries him, almost as if he picks that person and knows what is in store for him.

Although not very intelligent on the scale of animals, the horse often displays a fascinating ability to foresee the future and read your mind. I believe people used to have instincts similar to animals, but we erased them over centuries of education and “civilization,” and now, when we don’t follow what little is left of our instincts, we often live to regret it.


Anne Gribbons was the U.S Equestrian Federation technical advisor for dressage from 2010-2012. She has trained and shown 15 horses of her own to Grand Prix and competed in 10 national championships, as well as in Europe, including the Aachen CHIO (Germany). Seven of her horses have been named U.S. Dressage Federation Horse of the Year, and she was a member of the 1995 Pan American Games silver medal-winning team for the United States. Anne is a Fédération Equestre Internationale five-star judge, and she was a member of the FEI Dressage Committee from 2010-2013. She was inducted into the Roemer Foundation/USDF Hall of Fame in 2013. Anne started contributing to Between Rounds in 1995, and a collection of those columns is now available in the book Collective Remarks.

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