How my horse says fuck you

Tristan is a very good communicator.

He’s more perceptive of body language – both of horses and people – than many horses I’ve known. He makes his preferences very clear, both on the ground and under the saddle. He has a remarkably expressive face that can convey a wide range of emotion in just a few seconds.

Here’s one of the ways Tristan says “fuck you, mom.”

Yes, that is a picture of my horse drinking water. 
Let me explain.
Tristan is fully aware that I will never, ever pull him away from water. He’s not a great drinker, and he has a colic history. I keep a very close eye on his water intake, and have a very firm rule: if he’s drinking, I do not touch him.
It started on trails: he would drop his head and slurp from whatever puddle or stream was nearby. Ok, fine: he grew up in the desert, and he took advantage of every possible opportunity.
But then it started happening in his stall, in very specific instances. Sometimes I’d put his bridle on him and start to lead him out of his stall. He’d pause by his water bucket, then start drinking. And keep drinking. And drinking.
Sometimes he’d flick an ear and turn an eye toward me, very clearly saying, “Yup, I know you’re waiting. That’s the idea.” Sometimes he’d pick his head all the way out of his water bucket, and I’d ask him to walk on, and he’d shove his head back in the water bucket. He’ll drain half the bucket that way.
Last night, we had a terrific ride – a good, hard 50 minutes, with quality work interspersed with lots of walk breaks during which we practiced turning corners, serpentines, and lateral work. In the trot we worked on consistency in the bit over trot poles. In the canter we worked on going from straight long sides to circles on the bend, while keeping his head down and driving from the hind end. He was terrific. He was very, very tired.
pony & poles
So I put him back in his stall, and went back out to get his cooler to hang out while I put tack away. He wasn’t overly warm, but he was not cool yet, and it was just cold enough I didn’t think naked was the way to go.
When I stepped into his stall, he looked at me, and shoved his head into the bucket. He slurped and slurped. He picked his head back up, looked at me, and shoved his head back into his bucket. This was not “oh I’m so tired and thirsty.” He’d been in the stall for several minutes with ample opportunity to take a drink, minutes he’d spent rooting around for hay scraps and licking his grain bucket.
He picked his head up and put it back in the water bucket several times, each time looking at me while I stood holding his cooler and waiting.
Then he finally stepped back, walked over to me, and shoved his head through the neck hole of the cooler and let me put it on him.
I have never known any other horse who more clearly needs to have at least the illusion of control over everything he does. He needs to be able to tell me to fuck off, then make his own decision about what’s going to happen next. He has been exactly this way since day one, ten years now. Probably he was that way before he was mine and a domestic horse. It never ceases to amaze and amuse me.

21 thoughts on “How my horse says fuck you

  1. One of my mentors says that all captive animals need three things in their lives for positive well-being: the opportunity to be rewarded, the opportunity to explore, and the ability to exert control over their environment. Obviously there are plenty of instances where both captive AND wild animals do not have these opportunities. Controlling their environment in particular is a hard one — we mandate when our horses are fed, when they go in and out, and what they do to a HUGE degree. So I LOVE that Tristan gets to control you in this little way, and that you let him. I think that is awesome.


  2. my mare used coughing as a way to delay the riding lesson. The ONLY time she would cough, is when I picked up the trot to start the lesson. At first, I would go back to walk and let her hang her head a few circles. Then I started joking about her delaying tactics. Then I just kept her going at the trot. She doesn't do it anymore. So funny, the things they do.


  3. I often think that we're the dumb ones, and horses find any way to communicate with us that they can. Sounds like Tristan has really figured it out – sure, it's a weird cue, but it works for you two!


  4. Ha, Bobby does this too, though not nearly to the cheeky level of Tristan. He's certainly a pro at timing his water drinking to only when I'm ready to take him out of his stall.


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