Feeding With Boxes and Hay Feng Shui

Lensman and Gunsmoke tested a feeder that we have since adopted farm wide – a High Country Plastics Slow Feeder. I put it in the hotel stall and cycled them through  so I could observe their behavior.

Once again, the two horses showed their unique personalities.

The feeder is a large plastic box with a slot and an upper lip, with a rounded grate that lies on the hay to slow access to the material. It’s fairly large, but not bad in the corner of a 12×12 stall. Horses feed by pulling hay from the large holes in the grate. I was interested to see how they would react to food in a container, whether the container would be proof against their strength, whether it would be frustrating  to get hay so slowly, and whether it might pose any danger inside a stall.

Gunsmoke did not seem worried by it at all, and he immediately set to work eating. I watched both hidden and and in the open and did not see frustration or concern. He moved the box once, and then pretty much left it alone. I watched him for ten minutes and he seemed to be fine with it. Finally, I moved him back to his regular stall and brought Lensman in to see how he reacted.

Lensman was initially concerned and snorked once, pulling back briefly. Then he investigated. He found it contained hay, and like Gunsmoke set about eating. However, his behavior was quite different from Gunsmoke’s. He moved the box several times. It seemed as if he wanted to put it near the door, where he usually eats his hay. After he has settled for a while, he moved it a couple of times again, inspecting the ground where it had been, as if looking for the denji that usually lives under a pile of hay. Then he ate some more and did it again.

When he wanted to roll, the box being away from the wall seemed to impede his decision-making process. I entered and pushed the box back against the wall and he decided that was better, so he turned himself into a horsey cutlet, covered in shavings.

The most surprising thing was that he did not want to leave the stall when his ten minutes were up. In fact, he avoided me. He turned away and when I came to him, he actually walked away into the corner. This was nearly unprecedented behavior, and I could only interpret it in terms of what had changed – the feeder. Whether he preferred it because it was more like grazing (with pulling and tearing) or because it meant the hay did not smell like the floor (Sue’s hypothesis), he did not want to leave it and was adamant.  In any event, I decided to allow him to stay, and I set up one of the Ayrstone cameras I am experimenting with so I could watch him.

He ate longer than Gunsmoke, who had “free hay”, though Gunsmoke was not out of hay when I returned two hours later. He ate less, I think, but was still successful in pulling hay through the grate up until when I returned him to his stall at 11 – this time he let me take him out, but when I gave him hay, he was not ravenous.

Weeks later, we now have many things we like about the feeders. There is almost no waste. The boys eat all night and have hay in the morning. We use them outside and now we can move the boxes in and out with a hand truck and the horses neither waste hay into the mud, nor do they require a “lunch feeding”  – they just eat.

Lensman and Gunsmoke handled the feeders in their stalls very differently. Lensman eventually decided to Feng Shui his stall by moving his feeder. At first, we though he just didn’t want to eat at the front of the stall. It looked like he wanted to eat at the side – we accommodated this and rearranged the stall, but it didn’t work – he just moved the feeder further. Always clockwise. Sometimes almost three quarters of a circle. Sue theorized he was looking for the dust under the hay. I thought he was just doing the feeder equivalent of hay flinging.

Gunsmoke, on the other hand, ever phlegmatic, simply ate from his feeder. Didn’t try to move it. Sometimes preferred to eat from one side more than the other, sloping the grate. Didn’t bang it or disrupt it.

Outside, they treat the feeders like hay piles. We keep them twenty or so feet apart, and Gunsmoke frequently decides that the hay Lensman is eating must be better, or maybe just feels an urge to display dominance – in any event, the “changing of the boxes” is a frequent early turnout activity, which poor Lensman puts up with, stolidly moving from his box to the just-vacated Gunsmoke box, and then back again, when Gunsmoke takes it into his head to return. Repeat. Ditto. For hours. Somewhere around eleven in the morning, Gunsmoke goes somewhere to observe the kingdom and doze, and then Lensman eats wherever he wants until he, too, is satiated and needs to go find a place in the paddock to snooze.

We eventually decided to strap Lensman’s stall feeder to the wall – it was too much of a mess to deal with the giant path he made with it through his shavings, intersecting poo and pee spots. He took this in stride and didn’t seem frustrated (he stamps his little hooves when he is frustrated). Maybe it actually made things easier for him, since he never seemed to think through whether the box was left somewhere that might make it harder to lie down.

So they eat all day, and eat all night, and their hay is fresh. That makes them happy, so we’re happy too.

Real Horses

There are days when I love our horses, Gunsmoke and Lensman. It’s a passionate feeling you can’t have every day and sometimes my emotions are more complex than that.

These well-trained horses are rich, brave creatures, loving simple things – crisp warm water, clean shavings, green hay. They are content in ways that surprise me and they are driven to obsession by the absence of their friends or the sight of a herd of deer.

But I make no mistake – they are not furry people, they are not mute humans communicating with body language. They are the closest alien life form we have, and they have a size and a pace to their life that makes them more comprehensible to me than the dog or the cat. Yet they are still strange and surprising.

They are my possessions and they are my companions. And I’ve ripped up my life and changed it because of them.

When I was a child, everyone only knew that animals were creatures of instinct and thought of them as if they were unthinking automatons. But now we know differently – animals are a continuum from the purely instinctive to the rationality of man. Their perceptions and evolution have shaped what they care about what they do about it and who they are. They do not want what we want and they are not what we are. They are individualized creatures that are not man.

I’m fortunate to be with them. Let me tell you what it’s like…

Their lives seem simple – intake, elimination, movement, stillness. But then there’s playfulness, eagerness, alertness, sleepiness, dreams (REM sleep), fear, joy, enhanced perceptions and interpretation of perception (sometimes with surprising consequences). And if you want to train them, there are emotional, physical and mental readiness components, plus dealing with anticipation, flight response leakage into training sessions, context and how it affects their interpretation of the training…

To read their minds is the goal – what cognitive and comparative psychologists typically call “theory of mind”. This is the enjoyable art and science of being with horses and learning how they think and emote. Watching them day and night with cameras, socializing with them in their paddocks and stalls, working with them to coach and teach them, and, of course to reassure and console them – after all, they are still prey animals, carrying all the baggage of sixty million years where a mistake literally was a matter of life and death – being food versus enjoying food.

The life of the horse was not an easy life in the state of nature, and they still remain sensitized to that life, no matter how much we domesticate them.

There are funny incidents, like the poo and the grain dish, or Lensman’s obsession with rearranging the food box in his stall. There are incidents that turn your heart over a little, like Gunsmoke walking into Tufts Large Animal Hospital with his head down, trying to be obedient and brave in the face of what must be a frightening array of smells and sounds. Or his need to be reassured about the scary frog noise in his stall. Events that reveal them in a state of nature, like when the deer walked by on the ridge, and Lensman seemed to want to turn into one of them. And relationships, like Gunsmoke’s insistence on dominating Lensman, their invention of games like Lead Rope and Chin Chew or “Who’s got the Halter”. Lensman’s desire to be close to Gunsmoke sometimes and their fights from time to time. The individuality of even these two horses, revealed in their approach to new places and situations, their preferences in eating, sleeping and wandering, and what they seem to need from us.

It is a wonderful world, the mind of the horse. I love to go there and hope you will, too.