A little insight on how herd animals think.
Horses are herd animals. That means they like to be together. When the lead horse moves, the rest of the herd follows. My horses follow that rule. I only have two of them: Jake, a sorrel Quarter Horse, and Cherokee, a Paint Quarter Horse. Jake is generally the boss, but they’re good buddies and they’re always within sight of each other, if not right next to each other.
They’re with me now at Howard Mesa. The 40 acres is completely fenced in and they’ve been wandering throughout the entire place, looking for the best grazing spot. They come up to their round pen to drink or for dinner — I toss them some alfalfa to supplement their grass diet — but otherwise, they can be anywhere inside the fence. Sometimes I’ll see them far down in the west corner. Sometimes they’re on the east side. But they’re always together. So imagine my surprise when Cherokee returned to the round pen without Jake. Jake wasn’t far away — only 50 yards or so — but Cherokee trotted up as if he’d been spooked by something and decided to hang out in the round pen for a while. He nibbled on what was left of the alfalfa, then went for a drink. Then he seemed to doze off, standing by the water trough.
Meanwhile, Jake wandered off.
I watched from my seat at the picnic table, where I was writing another blog entry. It was very interesting to me. I couldn’t see Jake anymore but I assumed Cherokee could. I thought I heard a car on the road, and got up to take a look. (Nah.) When I came back, Cherokee was awake, looking at me. And I think he realized that Jake wasn’t around. He decided to go find him. I watched him leave the round pen and walk purposefully toward where we’d last seen Jake. His head turned one way and then the other. He was looking. He had no idea where Jake was. And then he whinnied — loudly.
I could see him starting to panic as he trotted around, whinnying his distress call. But it was windy and with the sound of the wind in the trees and grass, I didn’t think his voice would carry very far. He came back to the round pen, looking very upset, then trotted out again, looking. I decided I’d better find Jake.
It took some doing, but I finally found Jake about a third of the way down the hill, at least a quarter mile away. I called him, but even if he heard me (which I doubt), I knew he wouldn’t come. (Jake is not like a dog. He’s more like a cat.) So I called Cherokee. At least he indicated that he heard me. But he was too panicky to even think of why I might be calling him. Long story not as long: I went back to the round pen, put the lead rope on Cherokee, and led him down toward Jake. When I had a good view of him, I pointed him out. But horses don’t understand pointing fingers. He looked everywhere except where I was pointing. Then Jake saw us. He let out a loud whinny that seemed to say, “What the hell are you doing up there?” Cherokee whinnied back. I took off the lead rope and he trotted down to his buddy.
A few minutes later, they returned together to the round pen. The two of them stood over the water trough — Jake’s favorite place to stand — and took a nap.