Nuts in the Wind
In the Colorado Rocky
Mountains, we get a periodic week or so throughout the year where the wind not only blows, it wails and yowls. It whips and blasts, and shrieks. The pine trees no longer waltz in their usual polite 4-beat cadenced rhythm, arms floating gently in soft waving motions; no, instead, they bump and grind, with branches lashing out, while moaning the unfairness of their being rooted in rock-hard ground while the wind tears at their limbs. Once out of the trees, down in the valley, the grasses are laid flat as the wind plasters it to the ground. Birds flounder, buffeted by unpredictable air currents that can’t be trusted. Even the water in the ponds is whipped into a frenzy of meringue-white peaks and basins.
Wildlife is on edge; deer and elk drop their head to graze, but their eyes and ears are on the constant lookout for danger. The coyotes trot along, noses to the ground, backs long and low as they search for their next meal.
Turbulent, furious and loud, wind season is nothing short of violent.
But you want to ride your horse. He’s a good, solid mount and he’s well-trained, so why not? So you take him to the grooming station to saddle up, but even that simple task is more like a boxing spar than your average bonding time. He’s on edge and doesn’t want to stand still. His head is high with swiveling ears and eyes edged in white. His nostrils flare, and he snorts every three minutes.
You smack him lightly with your open palm—a move than normally stops any silliness—and he jumps up and then away from you before the cross-ties hinder any further lateral skittering. This causes head shaking on his part accompanied by drumming stomps from all four feet.
You step back, drop the brush you were holding, and wonder who this fire-breathing dragon is as you reconsider the bright idea of getting on his back.
Good choice, this rethinking, and here’s why: first, the same old discourse applies here—horses are prey animals. Yeah, yeah, so what? Well, go back to the very foundation of horsemanship and think like a horse, only remember that thinking isn’t actually the basis of your dragon’s uneasiness. Your horse is a horse first and this means his safety is his primary concern at all times. In some animals, this underlying self-preservation current is slow running, more of a hum, but in others, it’s a high-pitched whine that dictates rather than just play in the background.
In the times of the dreaded wind, even the horse who is usually calm and docile will be a bit more aware and troubled. He may hide his feelings, but watch his ears and notice the height of his head carriage. Likely, you’ll see sharper movements that are more staccato than normal and he seems….taller. Sometimes you are lucky and that is all you get.
Others will notice their horse is higher, hotter, prancier, faster, and less willing than usual. These are the dragon-horses that might be better left in the barn on windy days if you find yourself apprehensive about riding, or even grooming him. If this doesn’t bother you and you are experienced enough, use the windy days to school and help your horse through this fear. The why of this sudden change in behavior is important to consider. As prey animals, the horse—yes, even the domesticated, born in a barn, handled since day one horse—is genetically an equine, subject to the fear of being eaten by some larger predator. In the wind, when the trees are doing the salsa, rhumba and boogie foxtrot all at once, the sound of branches creaking, and whistling squalls sends the horse into input overdrive. . Remember, it is not actually the wind itself that scares him; it’s what the wind hides and carries. Meaning that sounds he needs to hear (something approaching), he cannot, while the air becomes filled with all sorts of odor normally hidden. He can’t hear any bad guys who may be stalking him. He’s smelling all sorts of things he might normally not. His vision is impaired as he squints to keep dust out of his eyes.
But you’re in the barn, you say. There’s a roof, walls, and other horses around you say. And yet, your horse is as much frightened dragon as he is equid. Thing is, even though all these things are true, your beloved equine still feels a sense of heightened alert. How to help him let go of his apparent need to breathe fire is simple, but can take time.
The goal is to get your horse to think and not just react. You want to help him find his Zen, you aren’t trying to “make” him see the foolishness of his actions.
The first thing to look at is your relationship with your horse. If he doesn’t view you as capable, calm and consistent, he is likely to be more leery than if he knows you will always take care of him. Sounds simple enough, but how do you build that strong bond and trust on a windy day. You don’t. Wait until you are both calm and work on your relationship. This is not a one day quick fix, so give it time—yes, as long as a year, in some cases.
The second thing to focus on is your own emotions during windy days. Have you learned to be apprehensive because your horse is? This is far more common than one might imagine and yet people forget how in tune with our emotions the horse is. Be sure it’s not you that’s causing him distress.
But let’s say you are fine in all other circumstances and any other place. He’s not a fearful horse, he goes where and when you want him to, he is willing, happy and you seldom, if ever, have any problems. What then?
We’ll talk about arena riding at first, and hopefully, you have an indoor. If not, do these things in your barn on the ground. Never do all of the following simultaneously; you’ll do much more harm than good.
Since the sound of wind is usually the most common trigger for creating dragons, and masks his ability to know what is around him, or what is coming toward him, we need to help rid his perception of being vulnerable. As you groom him, and later, ride him, do the one of the following. Experiment with everything you can think of to find how best to help him settle and remain calm, even when it’s howling windy.
- Turn on a radio with the volume turned up. Choose music that is calming to you.
- Consider using “ear plugs” that you can buy or make your own, but be sure they won’t get lost or denigrate while in his ear.
Some horses aren’t as worried about the sounds, but the odors that get churned up in wind can cause some of them to come unglued.
- Smear a little menthol-scented rub on his nose, beneath his nostrils and it will cover up all other scents.
- Spray some calming essential oil around him as you groom—Lavender is a perfect choice.
Since dust and other debris can bother his eyes and cause him distress, and since we can’t put sunglasses on him:
- Try riding in a fly mask to help protect his eyes. Do this even if indoors to acclimate him.
- Some horses prefer blinders or blinkers to limit the amount of motion seen peripherally.
When you find which sense he is most vulnerable to having overloaded, you will be able to limit the stimulation and thus help him cope with the overload of his senses. This is a temporary aid to training him to accept frightening noises, smells and the sight impairment he must endure when it’s windy.
Once your horse is able to think and not only react, remove the mask you have applied. Turn off the radio, or take off the fly mask. Maybe stay with the Lavender oil spray; it won’t hurt any training you’re accomplishing, and will help you both feel calmer, easier.
Happy Trails and Safe Riding!