I introduced my horse, Zip, in my second blog, It’s Springtime on the Farm! In it, I stated that instead of a robin, my first sign of spring was a bucketful of Zip’s hair from his shedding coat. Other than that, I haven’t really talked much about Zip. In today’s blog, I plan to remedy that.
I purchased BB as a yearling in 2003, and BJ was born on our farm in 2009, but Zip was already seven years old when I purchased him in 2006. At that time, I was already riding BB, and I was looking for a trained horse that could be ridden by someone of moderate riding ability as a companion to me and BB on our trail rides. I found Zip in another county through an ad in our local newspaper. I was immediately impressed by his looks, his pedigree, and his training. He had actually gone through two phases of training – once to ride, and then to show. He had a calm demeanor and was very respectful. We took him home the first day we met him.
I did, however, wonder why, after paying for additional training to show him, did the original owners decide to sell him? I soon found out.
Zip, as it turned out, was lazy.
Now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing in a horse. It depends on how you want to use him. A lazy horse can make an awesome kid horse. You certainly don’t want to put a youngster on a high-strung, energetic horse that constantly wants to run. Zip is not that. In fact, as Zip has aged, he has become even more mellow, as impossible as that sounds. He is now virtually bomb-proof. When the first shotgun blast pierces the air at dawn on the opening day of pheasant season, BB and BJ will startle and charge out of the corral, snorting and bucking, tails flying. Meanwhile, Zip, munching on hay at the feeder, will lift his head, stop chewing for a few seconds as he rotates his ears to hear better, then decide all is well and go back to eating.
The little kids in my family are appropriately cautious around BB and BJ, but as one of my great-nieces affectionately proclaimed, “I love Zip! He is fun to play with.”
Personally, Zip is not my favorite mount. While lazy horses are great for little kids, they can be a source of irritation and frustration for a more experienced rider. For example, Zip is a grass-snatcher, not an uncommon trait for a lazy horse. On a trail ride, Zip will stop every few steps to snatch a few blades of grass, a tantalizing weed, or a low-hanging leaf. He will then munch while he’s walking, then snatch again.
When I discovered this annoying habit shortly after Zip’s purchase, I was determined to break him of grass-snatching. I consulted various training manuals and discovered that horses, like dogs, are highly intelligent and very trainable. With an intellectual capability comparable to that of a two-year-old human, they have the ability to make cause-and-effect associations if the “effect” occurs within two seconds of the “cause”.
The training manual suggested that the rider allow the lazy horse to snatch at will (the cause) but then immediately (within two seconds) make the horse work by running tight circles (the effect). Eventually, the horse will make the connection (if I snatch a bite, I will have to work) and will hopefully decide on his own that the bite of grass is not worth the extra work it causes.
Early one Saturday morning, I took Zip for a ride. I was prepared. I knew the key to training would be immediate and consistent response. (This is also true for human two-year-olds, by the way.) He snatched, I made him work. He snatched, I made him work. Over and over and over. I was beginning to get discouraged, until…
I deliberately rode him past a freshly-cut round bale of sorghum. Zip stretched his neck and opened his mouth to grab a bite…then closed his mouth and continued walking right past the bale.
I smiled, patted him on the neck and said, “Good job, Buddy. Let’s go home now.” I looked at my watch. It had taken exactly two hours.
He tested me once or twice on later rides, but after the same run-tight-circles response from me, he hasn’t tested me in years. I’ve noticed he still tries to snatch grass with other riders however.
I’ve told you all this as a prelude to an incident that occurred a couple of weeks ago. You need to understand all three of my horses’ personalities in order to fully appreciate what happened that night.
It was a beautiful, star-studded fall night, and as Danny and I were changing into our pajamas, I opened our bedroom windows to let in the crisp, fresh night air.
Danny heard it first. “Is that the horses?” he asked. I listened. I too, could hear them neighing. Their calls were high-pitched and frequent. Distress calls. I turned on our central yard light and could faintly see the outlines of horses running along the fence in the pasture. I grabbed some shoes and went outside in my pajamas to get a closer look.
I called back towards the house, “It’s BB and BJ! Danny, I don’t see Zip!” He then grabbed some shoes also, and came outside by me. We listened, but could not hear Zip answer back.
Zip is our oldest horse. It is not unheard of that an aging horse will, with no prior warning, die of a heart attack. That was my fear that night as we began our search for Zip.
Danny ran to get the tractor so he could use the lights to search the pasture. I ran to get our Ranger out of the garage. He was already driving his tractor along the pasture fence as I passed him in our Ranger. I motioned for him to join me in the Ranger. It was much more maneuverable, and I could shine a searchlight out the side window while he drove. We could cover more ground more quickly together in the Ranger. Danny left the tractor running, with the lights on, near the fence by our house.
We didn’t talk much as we drove, each of us thinking our own thoughts. Mine were fearful, but also puzzling. Our three horses were constantly together. If Zip were injured or dead, I couldn’t believe that the other two would knowingly leave him. When I saw them racing around, calling to Zip, it appeared that they also had no clue where he was. How could that be?
As we drove around that night, we checked every gate. Dead or alive, Zip was somewhere in that pasture. Of that we were certain.
“I saw something move!” Danny exclaimed. He had seen the shadow of what appeared to be a large animal move in front of the brightly shining tractor lights. We quickly drove back towards the house and barn.
“There’s Zip!” I told Danny. Sure enough, all three horses were now contentedly grazing side by side near the barn as if nothing whatsoever had just occurred to disrupt the calm of a star-studded autumn evening.
I puzzled on it for days. How had the horses gotten separated? And why did Zip not answer the other horses’ calls to him?
It was my farrier, several days later, who gave me the most reasonable explanation. “Here’s what probably happened,” Barrie said. “BB and BJ are slowly grazing their way to the barn to get a drink of water. They think Zip is right behind them. When they get to the barn and don’t see him, they get freaked out.”
Even though horses have excellent night vision, Zip could have easily been out of sight behind one of the rolling hills in our pasture. But that still didn’t explain why Zip didn’t answer their calls. And then it occurred to me – Zip is lazy.
He was probably grazing his way to the barn when he first heard his high-strung friends calling to him. Another high-strung horse would have answered immediately. But Zip’s response was, “Yeah, yeah. I’m coming. But first, just one more bite…” I’m sure he eventually answered, but by that time we couldn’t hear it over the sound of the engines.
Even though it was filled with anxiety and fear, the pajama-clad, nighttime search for Zip did have one positive outcome. It definitely clarified something for me – lazy or not, I was awfully glad to get my Zip back.
(Before BJ, there was Pokey, a sweet-tempered Shetland pony. You can read about her in the February chapter of The Return to the Family Farm.)
Next Week: Meet (the other) Ethel!