The things horses fear

Originally posted 2013.

These days, horses don’t have much to fear. Oh, there are the usual things: horse trailers, veterinarians, unexplained noises, etc. But the things they evolved to fear: lions, tigers and bears (oh my), are no longer threats to them.

Despite living in safe civilization, they still know there are things out there that want to eat them.

An acquaintance of mine bought a farm near Wolf Haven (a sanctuary for wolves in western Washington.). Her horses had never once, in their entire lives, heard wolves howl. Wolves had been exterminated in Washington State over a hundred fifty years ago.  Nevertheless, their first night in their new barn, they panicked when the wolves began to sing. It took them over a week to become accustomed to the howling.

Horses don’t understand extinction. Her horses, despite living in suburbia, knew instinctively that howling wolves heralded danger.
Millions of years of evolution cannot be erased by a few thousand of domestication.

Like an underused and unchallenged immunity system, if they can’t find something real to fear, horses will make it up.

That made up thing is a Horse Eating Monster.

You can see it for yourself, in any horse you know.

From what I’ve experienced, there are two types of HEMs-visible and invisible.

The most common HEM is the Invisible Horse Eating Monster.  IHEMs are virtually everywhere. They lurk in the most unexpected-and, to us, illogical places.

Every arena I’ve ever been in has an IHEM in it.

I managed to take a picture of an invisible HEM. This 4th level dressage horse has been in this arena so often it probably could do a test with its eyes closed. During this particular test, the horse had passed this point at least five times in the prior five minutes.

Suddenly he stopped-and right after I snapped the picture, he bolted.


Do you see anything?

Me neither.

But I bet this is what the horse saw:


Having seen how velociraptors work in “Jurassic Park”, I’m betting I would have run like a rabbit. Too.

Visible HEM’s are everywhere. They’re simple or complex, animated or inanimate, every day or not so common items that don’t seem to pose a danger-but the horse sees it differently.

What differentiates a common, every day item from a Visible HEM is impossible to discern.  We cannot tell why one horse is terrified of an everyday object and the horse that lives right next to it doesn’t even acknowledge its existence. We can’t even classify them as to what we THINK the horse may fear, and what we subsequently learn it does fear.
Each horse sees things in a different light, I suppose. For instance, I’d not owned my Arab gelding, Jordan, for very long when I got on him, bareback, to ride down our gravel road.

Anyone who’s ever owned one will agree that Arabs are already prone to being spooky. I believe that an Arab isn’t an Arab unless it has a spook a day. Once the requisite spook has erupted, your Arab will then be amenable to your every command.

Jordan was a card carrying, CMK line Arab. I’d already ridden out many of his spooks. As I rode, I saw that one of my neighbors was having a cement driveway poured. I thought, uh, oh, Jordan’s going to spook at that big, noisy, rotating machine.

Pfffft. Jordan passed it as if he’d been foaled next to it.

We continued on and further up the lane, I saw a neighbor’s herd of llamas grazing in their pasture. A hedgerow of Scotch broom separated the fence line from the road-as well as from Jordan’s view.  (He was …ahem…short).

As we passed, seven llama heads reared up, curious to see the horse.
This is what I saw:several llamas

This, obviously, is what Jordan saw:


Suddenly we were flying, me hanging on his mane for dear life, as Jordan fled for home.

I don’t even remember feeling him turn around. One moment he was fine, the next moment he could have beaten Secretariat.

I could never ride him past that pasture again without wondering if he was going to bolt. He never did. I think he was a bit sheepish at bolting at what he later learned were merely animals.

I will admit to a certain amount of pride in that, not only did I ride out his bolt, but also stayed aboard while he galloped home-bareback. I could never get him to run that fast again, either.

Visible HEM’s are all around us. We can see them, but they disguise themselves. The visible ones are things that you and I would never think of fearing. For instance:

Plastic sack

What appears to you to be a simple, plastic shopping bag,looks like THIS to a horse;


I’ve been involved in ‘desensitizing’ or ‘habituation’ sessions. This is an excellent way of teaching a horse that a Visible HEM is really nothing to fear.

Today’s training session involved a stuffed toy animal.  In this one, a big stuffed bunny is being towed behind…and, by backing the horse, pulled TOWARD the horse. That’s Raven in the middle, with Sue on his back, the only one riding ‘English’. Raven wasn’t ‘fraid of no bunnies, but one of the horses was. The picture is fuzzy, I’m sorry to say, but one can still see the doubt all over his face.


After watching the other horses strangle the bunny without problems, that horse was fine.

And then, there are horses that simply have no fear. Horses like Deck.

Deck was one of my neighbor’s horses. His height (16.2) and his feathered pasterns betrayed the draft horse in him, but he was mostly QH-the old fashioned, foundation type QH. The one legible brand of the three on his hide told of having lived and worked under the wide blue Wyoming sky, with the scent of sagebrush and ponderosa pine in his nostrils.

Deck was quite possibly the bravest horse I’d ever known. He was first used in the rodeo, hazing the bucking bulls. Those bulls, hopped up on steroids, their testicles crushed by leather straps, are still furious when they unload their cowboy. They sometimes take it out on anyone in their way.

Deck knew his job was to protect the cowboy on the ground. It didn’t matter if the bull was meaner than Bodacious, Deck would intervene. He clearly thought of cattle as creatures of very little brain, and seemed to get a kick out of teasing the bull into leaving the rider to chase him.

Deck’s next job was to carry rich city dwellers up into the mountains of Montana and Wyoming to hunt elk. He could be counted on to be a calm, unflappable mount. Men who’d never sat on a horse in their lives on the way up into the mountains came down it believing themselves to be ‘natural born horsemen’. It never occurred to them that their suddenly realized ability to ‘really ride’ came solely from Deck’s babysitting.

Deck gained a reputation for being fearless. Nothing frightened him-not lightning strikes in the mountain tops, not the scent of cougars, not the howling of wolves, not packing a freshly killed elk carcass down a mountainside. One time a hungry bear entered the hunting camp, and while all the other horses panicked on the end of their highline, Deck stood there, ears up, tail swishing, at the very end of the picket line (and closest to the bear), glaring at the boar to ‘bring it on’”.

Deck was retired from the outfitting business, and given to the outfitter’s daughter, who lives near me. She and her husband foxhunt, (although in this part of the country, they don’t chase foxes-they chase coyotes.) On the first day of hunt season, her experienced field hunter was lame. She knew Deck had watched her gelding school over fences, but she had no idea how he’d take to the really big obstacles, and the hurly-burly of the chase.

She needn’t have worried. Deck ignored the pack of noisy hounds that surged around his feet.  He hung back at the end of the field of hunters, observing the other horses, until he realized what the objective was. While his style over obstacles would never gain him points in a hunt seat class, he never balked at a single one. He even seemed to enjoy it, although he undoubtedly wondered why they were chasing madly about for no reason he could discern.

It was thought that Deck feared nothing. Not rodeo bulls, not cougars, wolves or bears. Deck feared no gunshots, not the smell of a dead elk, no howling winter blizzard, not a trailer or a jump.

He was trustworthy and gentle-so much so that the woman put her year old daughter on his bare back and led them, teaching her daughter to ride.

Then, one day, a HEM entered the barn.

Deck, who’d been minding his own business in his stall, took one look at it and bolted. He was so terrified he broke through the wooden paddock fence and ran as far as the property line, (about fifty acres). There he stood by the fence and trembled, refusing to come in even when he could hear dinner being served. Only after dark did he allow my neighbor to coax him back to the barn, slowly, one step at a time. It took almost an hour to get him to enter his stall. For days afterwards, the slightest unusual sound would send him running to the end of his paddock. He was never the same after that. Perhaps it was his age-he was in his mid-twenties by then? His courage had left him. He’d finally seen a Horse Eating Monster.

The woman said it broke her heart to see this gallant old horse terrorized…but she had to laugh, too. The HEM that had so badly frightened Deck belonged to her toddler.

Here is a picture of it.

corn popper

About subodai213

Retired U.N.C.L.E agent. Living in Laurasia.
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4 Responses to The things horses fear

  1. bronxboy55 says:

    I knew nothing about horses before I started reading your blog. This topic, especially, is one I’d never even thought about. The picture of the llamas and the subsequent dragon illustration is perfect, and so is the paragraph on the “natural born horsemen.”

  2. Omg, the llamas had me laughing hysterically. And my Thoroughbred is TERRIFIED of plastic bags–and toilet paper, although we can now just about mummify the poor guy with the toilet paper. He’ll be graduating to the bags next!

  3. magreenlee says:

    Love this! So true! Especially about every arena having an IHEM. Mine had two, but after about six months I figured out that one of them was caused by the electric fence earthing system being too close to the arena. Oops.

    • subodai213 says:

      Holy cats! I never thought of that!!! Wow, that could be so dangerous…what with horses going in a wet spot and wearing metal shoes……..thank you. I’m going to the barn in a while and will see if the IHEM isn’t a broken electric wire!

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