A Whinny in the Night…

…means there’s something wrong.

Horses are generally very quiet animals. They spend their lives eating, pooping, and sleeping. And they do it without vocalizations.

So when I woke last night at about 1:30 AM to the sound of a horse whinnying, I didn’t just roll over and go back to sleep.

Although Wickenburg has traditionally been a horse-property town, the new subdivisions going in all over town don’t allow horses. How could they, with lot sizes shrinking from over an acre per house (we have 2-1/2 acres) to 1/2 acre or less? Even the subdivisions with relatively large lots bordering open land — Saddle Ridge comes to mind — have prohibited horses. Many horse people are moving out of town and existing horse property is being bought by newcomers who don’t have horses. So while there used to be nine horses in our immediate area, there are now only five. And two of them are ours.

Jake and Cherokee at Howard MesaJake and Cherokee are a pair of Quarter Horses. Jake is a former ranch horse that was likely abused — or at least handled roughly — during his working life. He’s very hand shy — don’t try to pet his face! — and doesn’t like to be bothered on his free time. To him, that means any time there isn’t a halter on his face or a saddle on his back. But get him saddled up and he’ll do whatever you want. Jake’s about 25 years old now, which is getting up there in years for a horse. He’s sorrel (reddish brown) and has a swayback. He’s the alpha male in our little herd, bossing around his buddy and terrorizing any other horse we might put in with them.

Cherokee is a paint Quarter Horse. He’s a very pretty boy and he knows it. Previous owners spoiled him and neglected to train him properly, so when we got him, he was difficult to handle and rather “bratty.” Over time, I showed him who was boss. He still tries to get away with things — stopping for no reason on a trail, dancing around while being saddled, biting Jake’s back leg on a trail ride — so whoever rides him has to be on constant vigilance. We don’t put visitors on Cherokee’s back. Cherokee taught me how to fall off a horse — and it took me several lessons over that first year to get it right. I taught him that rabbits were nothing to be afraid of. He’s about 17 now and very fat because he manages to eat more than half the food when we feed the two horses together.

Anyone who thinks that horses are just big dumb animals have obviously not spent any time around horses. Each horse has its own personality and, once you get to know a horse, you can predict what he’ll do in any situation. Jake is all business. He’s calm and will never kick or bite anyone — including another horse — while under saddle. You could drive a freight train right by him while there’s a rider on his back and he’d probably stand his ground until the train was gone. He’s very standoffish when he’s not working. Cherokee is the complete opposite. He’s friendly and will often come up to the fence when another rider goes by, just to silently say hello. He’ll always come to the fence when our friend Pete comes by with his grandkids or when John and Lorna stop by. He knows they bring treats and he wants to get the carrot or apple they’ve got for him. He loves to be petted and brushed and talked to. But get a saddle on him and take him out on the trail and you never know what might spook him or how he’ll behave.

The two horses are buddies, although it wasn’t Jake’s idea. Jake seems to hate every horse while Cherokee seems to love every horse. So when we first put them together, Jake would chase Cherokee away from him and his food and Cherokee would keep coming back for more. He’d be bitten and kicked but he’d take it like a dope. In time, he wore Jake down and now Jake doesn’t chase him off so often. It’s like he’s given up because he knows how useless it is.

Of the two of them, Jake is more vocal. He whinnies around feeding time, when he sees one of us around the hay shed preparing the food. It’s like he’s nagging us. “Hurry up! I’m hungry.” It’s an impatient whinny. Although Cherokee’s life revolves around food, he’s quiet about it.

The only other time they’ll whinny is when they’re separated. Horses are herd animals. They like to be together. When one of them is taken out for a ride or to the vet without the other, the remaining horse whinnies. Sometimes they both whinny. But if the one taken out is with other horses, he’s okay and usually stays quiet.

Sometimes when you get a bunch of strange horses together — like when we go on a trail ride with the Wickenburg Horsemen’s Association — they’ll whinny at each other. But our boys don’t usually participate in that ritual. They’re generally very quiet.

So when I heard a whinny in the middle of the night, I knew something was up. And since only two houses in the neighborhood have horses, there was a good chance that the problem was in our corral.

Now a lot of people who don’t live in a warmer climate think that horses live in barns. In colder climates, they often do. But not in Arizona. Most of the horses that live in Arizona live outdoors year-round. Our boys have two corrals: a large acre+ enclosure down in the wash (a dry riverbed) that runs through our property and a smaller pen with a turnout halfway up the driveway to our house. They spend the day together down in the wash, unless heavy rain is possible (and the wash could run). They eat their morning meal of alfalfa and grass and stretch out on the sand in the late morning for a nap. They spend the afternoon nibbling on whatever grass is left or biting the seed pods off the mesquite trees around them or just standing around the water trough dozing. At around 6 PM, we move them to the upper corral, where each of them has his own enclosure. We separate them in this area so Jake has enough time to eat. He eats more slowly than Cherokee and if they were always together, Cherokee would always get at least 3/4 of the food. We feed them alfalfa and grass, as well as a concoction we call “bucket” that includes red beet pulp, grain, bran, and a bunch of other stuff to add nutrition and keep their digestive systems clear. Jake also gets a “senior” pelleted feed and pelletized alfalfa to help fatten him up. If we didn’t do this, his ribs would show all the time.

Although they’re in separate enclosures, the two enclosures are adjacent to each other. In fact, you have to walk through one of them to get to the gate of the other. So they’re together. They just can’t share their food.

The other day, Jake wasn’t feeling too well. He was lethargic in the morning and we thought he was sick. Possibly with colic, a digestive problem that kills horses. We got him to the vet and he was checked out. The doctor gave him a shot and he seemed okay.

So when I heard the second whinny in the middle of the night, I thought of Jake.

Mike was awake as I pulled on my sweatpants. I asked him to come with me. I told him I was afraid of what I might find. We got a flashlight and started down the driveway. I immediately saw Jake, standing in his part of the corral, looking up at as as we came down. He was fine.

But Cherokee was nowhere in sight and the gate to his part of the corral was wide open.

Remember what I said about separation? Cherokee had wandered off and Jake was missing him. Thus, the whinny.

Now there were only two places he would have gone by himself. The closest (but less likely) was the lower corral. We walked down there and peeked in. The gate was open and there was no food down there, so there was no reason he’d be hanging out. He wasn’t. But it made sense to check there first.

The more likely destination was our neighbor’s horses. Remember what I said about horses liking to be together? We crossed the wash to their corral while Jake whinnied again behind us. My flashlight picked up Cherokee’s brown and white coat immediately. But he was inside one of their spare corrals. And when we got there, we found the gate securely latched behind him. He gave us a typically dopey look as we put the lead rope around him and started walking home. Our neighbor’s dog barked like crazy. Jake whinnied. One of our neighbor’s horses whinnied. It was a heck of a racket at 2 AM.

We walked Cherokee up the driveway and put him back in his corral. We opened the gate between the two horses. We closed the outer gate and secured it with a chain. That chain had been bought years ago when Jake learned to open gates. It appeared that Cherokee had learned the same trick.

In the morning, our neighbor stopped by to tell us our horse was in his corral. It was still dark and he didn’t realize we’d already retrieved him. He said that he’d been wandering around their place at about 10:30 PM. They’d caught him and put him in the corral for safekeeping. I’d figured it had been something like that.

But what I still can’t figure out is why he left in the first place. It’s so unlike Cherokee to take a walk by himself. The last time he’d opened the gate, he’d just hung around near Jake until we found him.

Could it be that our fat little boy is growing up?

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