Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Games Horses Play

Living with horses in a semi-wild setting provides many opportunities to observe how horses (and mules) interact with each other. I have been involved with horses for a little over twenty five years, but is only in the last three years that I have been able to keep horses in a family group and allow them to roam 360 acres. This expansive, varied landscape stimulates the horses in ways that are different than what I have observed in smaller groups kept in uninteresting paddocks.

One of the many interesting pass times I've observed, with all members of the herd, is how frequently they engage in play.

Yesterday morning I took my camera with me as the pups and I went out to groom the horses. There was a very cool wind which kept the biting insects hiding out in the forest and provided the herd with a bug free environment out in the open grasslands. Most of the group was interested in grazing, grazing and more grazing. Others, specifically our Sorraia stallion Altamiro and his two month old colt, Animado were feeling especially playful.

The photo at the top, along with the next three, capture Animado playing one of his favorite games, which we might call "Climb On Dad". I have seen this game played in a variety of ways. What was noteworthy from yesterday's session was how long the little colt remained perched up across the back of his father--a good three to five minutes! Adding to Altamiro's typical tolerance of these "Climb on Dad" games was the tender offering of rump grooming he gave to his son. Animado seemed to enjoy it and made little adjustments to help him stay up as long as he could. I'm thinking that having the colt wriggling over his back might have provided Altamiro with an impromptu back itch--in which case, this little game episode is also one of the most unusual "mutual grooming" sessions I've witnessed.
Just a few minutes after Animado slid off his dad and put four perfect little hooves back on the ground, Altamiro decided he would play a "Chase" game with Mistral.Mistral is my "first love"--meaning he was my first horse--we've been together since he was an unsure three year old. He is twenty-nine years old this year, and still King of the herd, still robust, energetic and capable of being part of a young stallion's game--after all, it was Mistral who taught Altamiro the finer points of the game "Chase".However, being an Arabian, and King of the herd means that the game of "Chase" is a short one--it wouldn't look good to the others if Mistral allowed himself to be chased extensively, so he quickly aborted the game.

This of course meant that Altamiro, who still had a lot of play left in him, needed a new partner...and who better than the big draft mule, Jerry!The game these two played is a real "rough and tumble" boy game and I haven't yet come up with a suitable name for it. It consists of tight circles where each tries to nip the rump and hind legs of the other and often explodes into rearing and neck biting. All in good fun of course, with playful long lips extended. In her book, Selbstbewusste Pferd, Imke Spilker calls the extending upper lip the "play face". These photos don't show it as well as some others I have, but you get a glimpse of it on Jerry in the last photo. This game offers a lot of muscular development and lateral suppling. These "out to pasture" horses are amazing athletes!
While Jerry and Altamiro were sparring, Animado decided to scamper a bit himself and I swung the camera his way just in time to get a little caper captured.
Thegame with Jerry seemed to satisfy Altamiro and he decided it was time to do some grazing. However, just as he was settling in to an especially nice patch of grass, Mistral entered the space and initiates a game of "I Can Nip Your Face Faster Than You Can Nip Mine!"This really is an example of "tit for tat" and served as Mistral's way of getting back at Altamiro who had rather caught him off guard with the chase game earlier while he (Mistral) was enjoying an especially succulent patch of grass. The "I Can Nip Your Face Faster Than You Can Nip Mine!" game lasted for what seemed like five minutes or more. I took a lot of photos, here are just a few of them:
Did you notice how intrigued tiny Fada is with this game as she peers at them from the background? It won't be long and the weeks old filly will be playing this game too!

After Mistral and Altamiro finished the "I Can Nip Your Face Faster Than You Can Nip Mine!" game, Animado came scampering over to his dad and tried to get a new game started--but, unfortunately, I couldn't stay to be part of it--I had to leave this pasture fun and get myself ready to go to work at the studio. It was a delight to have seen so many games taking place that morning, and I was thankful to have my camera along to capture some of it in pictures.


Kris McCormack said...

Lovely photos, Lynne!

It is wonderful to get a peek into the daily life of a herd. How varied and stimulating your horses days are, thanks to the expanse of space you've provided them and the companionship they have.

Lynne Gerard said...

Thanks for your comment, Kris.
I mentioned in the original post that all the herd members play, and they do...but it is the boys who seem to play most frequently.

I've also noted that these games are not long-lasting, protracted affairs, but are usually just a handful of minutes, with dozing or grazing or roaming to new territory in between play periods.