Working Around a Horse’s Death Wish, in Real Life and Fiction

I was going to write about horse breeds and fantasy worlds, but I’ll save that for later, because there’s a more topical topic for us this week. Considering that half the US is burning and much of the other half is underwater, and that whole swaths of the rest of the planet are in similar straits, I think it’s apposite to discuss how equines get through disasters. Or how they don’t.

How does that relate to horses in genre fiction, you ask? Well, if you’re a writer, you’ll be doing terrible things to characters, including your equines, and if you’re a reader, you may be wondering if the equines in the book are acting or reacting as they should (even if, logically speaking, they shouldn’t).

These parenthetical remarks are important. Keep them in mind. Also, take a moment to watch this video from Houston.

This is beautiful horsemanship under very dangerous conditions—and not just from the water. If the horse had decided to panic, she could have taken herself and her rescuer down, and it would have been all over. What that man was doing was real “horse whispering”—in the sense of radiating calm, whispering with his body language, approaching mindfully and carefully, and asking the horse at every step if this was all right, if he could make the next step. He didn’t rush. When she said no, he stopped and let her have her space. He persuaded her that he could be trusted, and that if he took charge, he would take her to safety.

That was a dangerous undertaking. She could have reared and battered him with her hooves, or turned and kicked him, or bolted over him and trampled him—both before he had the rope and while he was leading her to shallower water. Once she had the halter on, training took over, she recognized the equipment, she was safe to lead away. (And letting her graze was good horsemanship, too: eating grass calms the horse down, settles her stomach, gets endorphins going from the chewing.)

The thing about horses in panic situations is, they are least likely to choose the safest option. A horse confronted with a flood will bolt into it, rather than away from it, especially if she’s alone, but in a herd she can actually be worse. She loses her mind and runs to her death with the rest of her family.

This happened to a horse-colleague years ago, when a dam near a large stable broke and flooded the property. There were thirty horses in the barn and fields. Their caretakers tried desperately to free them, but those that managed to get away turned around and ran back into the flooded barn and would not leave.

Of the thirty, five made it out alive. Two died of stress and injuries. Only three survived, including the one stallion whom this lady had hand-led out of the flood. His descendants live on my farm, thanks to her efforts. But twenty-seven horses died, most because they would not do the sane or safe thing and run away from the water.

Somewhat weirdly,—except it’s a horse so weird is normal—a horse on dry land who is confronted with water may go nuts trying to avoid it, even if there’s a predator chasing her. She can be driven into it, but she’s just as likely to lose her mind and stall out completely rather than touch a hoof to the water.

Even if the water is half an inch deep. Especially if it’s half an inch deep. If she can’t tell how deep it is, she’s not going there.

Fire if anything is worse. Horses are justifiably terrified of it. Even the smell of smoke can make them seriously uneasy, and open flame can panic them unless they’re extremely well trained by trainers whom they trust implicitly. Those movie horses galloping through fire have been trained long and thoroughly.

And yet, when a horse is caught in a fire, as with flood, he’ll run toward it rather than away from it. That’s why barn fires are so deadly—not just that horses can be trapped in closed stalls and burned to death, but that even if the stalls are opened and the horses freed, they’ll turn around and run back into the burning barn. The only reliable way to save them is by hand, one by one—and if they won’t leave the barn, or if they flail and bolt and panic, that’s deadly for the handlers as well as the horses. A flood is a terrible thing, but a barn fire is a horse owner’s worst nightmare.

Barns burn hot, too, if they’re made of wood and the loft is full of hay. It’s not just a dropped match or an electrical failure that can start a fire; hay itself, if improperly cured and stored, can build up heat within the pile and spontaneously combust. Bale the hay while its damp and it starts to ferment inside, store the bales packed together so the heat has a chance to build up, and you’ve got the ingredients for a ferocious fire—with horses directly underneath or beside it.

Fire and flood aren’t the only threats to horses’ lives and safety, either. Horses and other large, four-footed livestock are highly susceptible to lightning strikes, not only when sheltering under trees but when out in the open. Lightning loves horses, especially if they’re steel-shod. The only really safe place for them in an electrical storm is in a barn with good grounding.

But in storms that feature a lot of wind—hurricanes and tornadoes—a barn can be a death trap. The best one can do in the face of these is to fasten all the doors and windows firmly open, likewise the pasture gates, and firmly attach or paint or Sharpie key information on the horse’s hooves and body (phone number, horse’s registration number, address, whatever fits). Then pray the horse makes it through and is found after the storm passes.

It is possible, in short, to train a horse to overcome its instincts, and a well-handled horse can trust its handler enough to follow the handler’s lead, but it’s not a sure thing. Horse brains just seem to break when they reach a certain level of existential terror. Given a choice between escape and death, they’ll choose death.

But is that necessarily a terrible thing? A domesticated horse has value to humans, and that value can be considerable. It’s in the humans’ interest to keep him alive and well for as long as possible. Humans have invested a great deal of resources and ingenuity in training, care and feeding, and veterinary medicine.

A horse in the wild has none of these options. Horses are highly vulnerable to diseases and infections of the lungs and brain, and their digestive systems lack certain failsafes such as the ability to vomit. Leg and foot injuries are most likely fatal, either because the horse can go into shock and founder, which is excruciatingly painful (the bone in the foot drops through the sole and renders the horse unable to stand or move), or because the horse can no longer run fast enough to escape from predators.

In the middle of a natural disaster, an individual horse or a whole herd might be better off choosing a fast death than a long, lingering one from injury, disease, or starvation (if fire or flood strips their habitat of fodder). So maybe, in extremis, the horse who runs toward the deadly thing is acting logically within the larger parameters of equine physiology and psychology.

These aren’t things horse people want to think about, but when the planet starts attacking the creatures that live on it, it’s a good thing to be prepared. Not just with disaster kits and barn-safety designs and evacuation plans, but with handling and training that will help the horse to overcome her natural death wish.

Judith Tarr is a lifelong horse person. She supports her habit by writing works of fantasy and science fiction as well as historical novels, many of which have been published as ebooks by Book View Cafe. Her most recent short novel, Dragons in the Earth, features a herd of magical horses, and her space opera, Forgotten Suns, features both terrestrial horses and an alien horselike species (and space whales!). She lives near Tucson, Arizona with a herd of Lipizzans, a clowder of cats, and a blue-eyed dog.

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