Transitions at the Farm, Part III: Foxie’s ReactionPosted: August 31, 2016
After saying goodbye to April, it was time to let Foxie and Shady get to know each other on their terms. We turned Foxie and Shady out into adjacent pastures, so they could visit over the fence. To my surprise, there was no squealing, just some touching of noses and then a sweet moment of mutual neck scratching.
Since things were going so well, I decided to let the horses graze together in the paddock. I watched them for a long while to see how they would get along. Mares are typically “in charge,” and will often put a gelding in his place with a well-timed bite or kick. Shady was clearly more interested in Foxie than she was in him. He followed her around the pasture, never letting her get more than a few feet away without walking or trotting up to her. Foxie seemed mostly disinterested, though occasionally she would pin her ears at Shady, as if to say “That’s close enough.”
That evening, I turned Foxie and Shady out into the big pasture together for the first time. In preparation for this, earlier in the week, I put April and Foxie in the big pasture during the evening and put Shady in the ring where he could graze and see them. I wanted Shady to get a feel for the openness of the larger pasture, and I wanted Foxie to get used to Shady’s presence.
Shady cantered up the lane to the big pasture, and Foxie trotted behind him. I hoped that this would mark the beginning of their friendship — an evening together, grazing and watching out for each other in this larger space. Later that night, Sydney and I walked down to see how the horses were getting along. All looked calm and peaceful.
The next morning, I woke up to the quiet anticipation of seeing Foxie and Shady together in the big pasture, noticing their interactions and watching how the feeding routine worked itself out. Which horse would lift his or her head first? Who (if either of them) would come to the sound of my voice? Would Foxie whirl and try to kick Shady to teach him to respect her? Or would Shady come galloping over, leaving Foxie to meander to the barn at her own pace?
The first thing I noticed when I got to the barn was that the large back doors were parted and Shady was peering in. We close them in the evening when the horses are in the big pasture, so that, on the off chance that Foxie might wander back to the barn, she wouldn’t be able to slip through the white bars at that end, walk through the aisle, slip through another set of bars and escape. She did this once a few months ago, when April was here, and she stayed near the front of the barn contentedly grazing on the fresh grass there while April called to her and paced back and forth at the back of the barn. April was a little afraid of the sound that the white bars (which were basically chains covered in pvc pipe) made when they moved, so she would never try to slip through them. And I had the sense that Shady felt the same way.
But my first thought when I saw the barn doors partway open was NOT that Foxie had slipped under the bars. Shady wasn’t acting anxious or worried as a horse might if he’d been left behind. He simply seemed happy to see me and ready for his breakfast. So I brought him into his stall and gave him some grain and a flake of hay. Then I walked out to the big pasture and called for Foxie. I was a little surprised that she wasn’t nearby, in the lane or on the hill going up to the ring. But, maybe she was pouting about April being gone…and keeping her distance from Shady.
I looked at the stand of trees near the driveway. No Foxie. As I crested the hill to the ring, I expected to see the top of her back. She was often hard to spot until you were almost upon her because of her low head carriage and the way her light palomino color blended with the morning sun. But she wasn’t in any of her usual places…near the fence by the road, in the far corner of the pasture. A flash of panic went through me. She’s gone!
I made myself think logically. Maybe she was lying down. Could she have colicked during the night? The stress of being with a new horse could have made her sick. She could be in a low spot in the pasture, more difficult to see. No. The pasture appeared to be empty. My mind started clicking…Where could she be? Looking for April? She was in heat yesterday, the sides of her vulva slick with moisture. In the past, when she was in heat, she often ran towards the fence to our west. We often joked that “her imaginary boyfriend” lived over that way. But once or twice when she had perked her ears and called out, she actually received a long, neighing response coming from somewhere in that direction.
I half-ran back to the barn, threw another flake of hay to Shady, who was getting antsy by himself in the stall, turning in circles and whinnying. “It’s okay, fella,” I said softly. “We’re gonna find her.” I walked back up the hill to the house. My plan was to get in the car and drive around the pasture, to look more closely at every spot of the field. And I needed to tell Sydney. I hated to wake her with this news. But Foxie was her horse, and she would want to know. I also needed her help. If we found her somewhere, one of us would have to lead her home, the other drive the car.
“Sydney, Foxie’s gone. She’s not in the pasture,” I said. It didn’t take her long to process my words. “What? Where’s Foxie?” I could hear the panic in her voice. “How’d she get out? Where did she go?”
“We’ll find her,” I tried to be reassuring. “I’m going to drive around the pasture to make sure she’s not there. But I don’t think she is. I’ll come back to the house after that. If I don’t find her we’ll need to search for her.
I drove the car slowly around the perimeter of the pasture, looking for any golden swell close to the ground that might turn out to be Foxie. But I saw nothing but grass and weeds. I drove up our next-door neighbor’s driveway. They have a park-like area next to a creek where cows who escape from the neighboring dairy farm sometimes come to graze. The grass is lush and green. I peered into the shadows under the trees. No Foxie. I drove towards the back of their property where there is a half-acre field, hoping to catch a glimpse of her. Still, no Foxie.
As I drove back to the house for Sydney, I considered dialing 911. Is that who you call for a missing horse? Or should I call Animal Control? In all my years of working with horses, I’d never had one go missing. I could post a notice on Facebook, share the news with the local horse forum. But, first, I thought I should stop and talk with the neighbors. We had wonderful neighbors. Living in the country over the past two decades, I’d learned that neighbors look out for each other. This past week, after Shady arrived, April had escaped, the first time she’d ever left the barn (and Foxie). As best we could figure she jiggled the latch to her stall door with her nose and opened it, then jumped over the white bars. Our neighbor saw her cross the road and his father, an old dairyman, was able to catch her and lead her back to our barn with a string of twine. This was the same neighbor who built our barn over 20 years ago.
I grabbed Foxie’s halter and a scoop of feed, and Sydney met me outside the house as soon as she heard my car. “Where could she be?” she asked as we drove down the gravel driveway. “I think she’s looking for April. She could be really far away.”
“I don’t think so,” I said, trying to soothe us both. But in my own mind, I imagined Foxie wandering through the brush, searching for her friend. I had felt her sadness when April left yesterday. My chest had ached when Foxie looked out her stall window and let out a piercing whinny. “We know she’s in heat,” I said. “And whenever she’s in heat, she’s starts calling for her boyfriend.” I gave Sydney a wry smile. “But I know she misses April.”
“We’ll start looking in the closest places and go from there. We’ll talk to all our neighbors in case anyone has seen her.” I pulled down the drive of a nearby farm, the place where we had envisioned Foxie’s “imaginary boyfriend” living. There was a white fence and an empty field with long grass, then a stand of trees. I kept driving and there was another pasture. “There she is!” Sydney pointed. As we both looked, we saw the shape of our Foxie standing towards the back of the field. She turned her sweet face toward us, as if to say, “Hello. I know you. Look what a lovely field I found.” There was a barn just beyond the field, and we saw a man there who must have been the one who caught her.
“Oh, thank goodness,” I said, sighing. I pulled into the driveway in front of the barn and got out of the car.
“Did you lose a horse,” the man said, straightening up from behind a lawn mower. He wiped his hands on his pants. “She’s a sweet one. How’d she get out?” he asked.
“We have a new horse at the barn,” I said, starting to explain. “She nudged the barn doors open and went under some poles.”
“Well, I guess you’ve got a job to take care of this afternoon,” he said to Sydney, his eyes twinkling.
When I called Foxie, she came trotting over, and I slipped the halter onto her nose. I looked around to see if there was any evidence of “a boyfriend.” A miniature horse was trotting around a small enclosure.
“We’ve just got a little pony around the place now,” the man said. “Want a pony?”
I laughed. “Not really,” I said smiling. “We’re having enough trouble with this one.” I looked at Foxie, who was happily grazing.
Sydney and I worked it out that she would drive the car home, while I led Foxie back to our barn along the road. It was less than a mile and Foxie behaved herself. She appeared no worse for the wear, and maybe even a little proud of herself that she’d had this adventure. She particularly seemed to enjoy ending up in a pasture with nice long grass.
Shady welcomed her home with a loud neigh. I led Foxie up to his stall and they touched noses. There was no squealing or striking out with front legs, just a calm sort of acceptance that they were back together again.
I turned both horses out into the paddock behind Foxie’s stall where they could enjoy the morning shade. The horses grazed without taking much notice of each other. A couple of times Foxie wandered over to April’s stall and looked inside. Every now and then, Shady would pick his head up from the grass and walk a little closer to Foxie. She didn’t move away or towards him, just simply continued to graze.
It’s my sense that when horses are in a small herd, as Foxie and April were, transitions are harder for them. They seem to become bonded in a deeper, more abiding way than when they are part of a large herd, or stabled with a greater number of horses.
When Shady first arrived at the barn, it shook things up. His presence was extremely exciting and stimulating for April. She went into a strong heat and was thrilled to see him…at least half of the time. April was prancing near Shady, lifting her tail and whinnying for him. The other half, April would stand in a far corner of the field with Foxie, as if they were a clique – two girls whispering about the new fellow. Foxie, on the other hand, never took a lot of notice of Shady. She seemed to be the steadying influence, the calm horse in the midst of a sea of hormonal surges. But once April was gone, I think Foxie missed her friend. It was more than habit for her to stick close to April or hide behind her. It was a sweet relationship, a deep friendship and bond that had grown over their year together.
Now that April is gone, I trust that Foxie and Shady will “work things out,” that they will become friends. But, it will be a process. I don’t expect the kind of drama that went on this morning to be ongoing. In fact, I suspect Foxie’s laid-back attitude will prevail and the horses will fall into a relaxed rhythm and routine, that Shady and Foxie will grow fond of each other. But it remains to be seen how their relationship will develop. I’ve never had a single mare and a single gelding at the barn, so I’m interested to see how it might be different from having two mares. My hope is that these two horses will grow close and learn to trust and rely on one another as Foxie and April did. But it will take time and shared experiences. There is no rush. We are at the beginning of something new….