I’ve written a bit about my Quarter Horse gelding Ichobod, whose 31st birthday was celebrated last May with a party in his honor. Since then he has lost his companion mare and adjusted to new neighbors, a pair of mules with whom he likes to share stories over a communal watering area while refusing to drink out of his former water tank next to his stall.
His life is less stressful, because he doesn’t worry when the mules leave for a ride or disappear from sight on the back side of their barn like he did with the mare, whom he absolutely adored. Especially when she was in heat and flirting shamelessly.
The owner of Ichobod’s retirement home has decide he’s an evil genius because he spends time every day checking and re-checking to see if his gate is firmly latched.
But he has developed a new behavior that has his human friends a bit baffled. Both I and H, the owner of the property where he was privileged to retire, had been thinking of him as a slightly senile old guy, mostly in a nice way that makes every day (and every meal) a happy thing. I witnessed one occasion when he “lost” his former companion mare right in plain sight in their shared pen and shakily trotted around crying for her for several minutes before he saw her standing right out in the open. And more than once he was seen to walk right into one of the posts supporting the covered “porch” outside his stall. Senility in action.
Or so we thought, until he started showing signs he might, instead, be a very sly genius.
A little background: for all that he’s a strapping 16-hand beast, Ich has always been a bit timid about new things. We had a very short show career because he was so clearly stressed by the traveling, proving to be a creature of habit and familiarity instead of an adventurous wanderer. And, except for showing off for the occasional admiring mare, he has also been a bit cautious of other horses until he’s had plenty of time to get acquainted. In short, he has been an introvert and a bit of a homebody.
That is, until recently.
A couple of months ago, all that timidity changed in one chance moment of opportunity. To understand the incident, you need to picture the scene. The gate to his roomy retirement space rests on a rolling caster on a bit of a hill with a section of railroad tie fitted as a stop on the downhill side. When going in and out to do chores for Ich and the other equines living on the property, the humans typically let gravity close the gate and left it unlatched until we were finished and leaving the barn area.
One afternoon when I was doing chores in the adjacent barn, property owner H came through Ichy’s gate as usual and stopped to consult about an injury to one of her horses in that barn. Something across the way drew the interest of that horse and we looked up to see Ichobod walking around outside his pen. Completely out of character, he had opened and gone through the gate and left his familiar space. I grabbed a halter and went to catch him, expecting he had only been lured out by the green grass just outside his gate.
Instead of grazing, he turned his backside to me, walked to the edge of the property and climbed down into a narrow dry wash. I followed along hoping he’d stop before he could stumble on the rocky uphill side of the drainage area, but on he went up the side and onto a narrow trail leading through cactus-strewn desert toward the neighbor’s house and barn. He was tottering along with his old-man walk just fast enough to stay ahead of me and completely ignoring my requests for him to “whoa.”
He went all the way to the nice neighbor’s corral, where her horse was having a bit of a fit at the impromptu visit. I had visions of Ich hurting himself by joining in trying to run the fenceline with the resident gelding and his companion goat, but he stopped and stuck his head over the fence and I was able to get a leadrope over his neck and march him home.
I didn’t think too much about the incident, which was amusing but clearly out of character for my barely sociable horse. Except, the next time I was doing chores, the old man nearly let himself out the same gate by hooking his head over the top and pulling it open. I caught him in the act and latched the gate, warning the property owner that my horse was apparently inclined to take another desert walk.
We all tried to be careful to remember to snap the gate chain every time we went in or out, but old habits die hard and Ichy had one more chance to go walkabout one morning when property owner’s sig other had fed early and gone off to work. H was in the shower when the phone rang, a neighbor saying she thought one of H’s brown horses was out and the neighbor was trying to catch it with a dog leash but it kept walking too fast for her to catch up.
By the time H rushed out in her hastily donned robe and barn boots, Ich was standing at his gate asking to be let in after having trekked all the way up her long driveway and down a dirt road to the community mailboxes and back. Safe and sound without a mark on him and ready to finish his breakfast, thank-you-very-much. And, at least we know he can find his way home. Maybe not so senile, after all?
You can bet after that we’ve all been paranoid about the gate. We all know he’s old and a bit frail and one bad fall would probably be the end of him, the old so-and-so. None of us wants to be responsible for the old man having yet another adventure out and about, so I was surprised on Sunday when H had another story to tell about my newly adventurous horse.
When doing chores, we have to pass through his space to access the feed room, which is a pair of converted stalls closed off with the bottom half of a traditional stable door. Early on it became apparent that Ichy spent quite a bit of time reaching over and leaning on this door, to the extent that the door was soon dragging on the ground and the hinges needed replace. To prevent him straining the new hinges, the owner fitted two eye bolts and stretched a length of nylon strap across the opening a couple inches above the top of the door. Fitted with a snap to allow easy access for feed deliveries, the strap gave Ich something besides the door to lean on. This arrangement also proved convenient for the humans, as instead of latching the door each time we passed back and forth carrying feed buckets or flakes of hay, we got used leaving the door unlatched and just ducking under the strap, which was clearly too low for an inquisitive old horse to get through.
Or so we thought, until Ichobod nearly gave H a heart attack last weekend.
Apparently the half door hadn’t been latched after Sunday morning’s feeding, because when H went to the barn later in the day she found Ichobod standing in the rather cramped feed storage space, butt against a stack of hay newly delivered just last week and head next to the back side of his neighbor’s fan attached to a pipe panel that closes the space that was the door to the second converted stall. She said he looked as content as if he were standing in front of his very own fan in his own stall next door.
There was a stack of straw on his left side, a table where we mix up and store grain/supplement buckets on his right, a pair of metal trash cans holding pellets and senior feed against his right shoulder and wood pallets and various boxes and empty feed containers directly ahead. In short, he was stuck, unless H could figure out how to back him around a 90-degree angle from his tail end, because she couldn’t get to his head.
Oh, and just to add to the fun, this is a horse who from the day I got him insists on backing out of a horse trailer as fast as he can go, no matter who might be holding on in front or what might be behind him. (I believe H did not know this fact, however, to her benefit.)
In the end, she basically tore apart the feed room, squeezing in between Ich and the table to move the metal cans and the plastic milk crates they were sitting on, worrying about him getting upset and scrambling and getting a leg in a milk crate or a pallet or worse. But it seems he was just fine waiting for her to rescue him, and as soon as there was space he turned himself around and let himself be lead by the fly mask out the through the door. After she unsnapped the strap, that is.
So, the big mystery is, how did a 16-hand horse manage to get under the nylon strap secured across the door opening? I’m 5-foot-6 and the strap hits me at about the base of my sternum, so about four feet give or take. And Ichobod is a solid 16 hands, so five feet four inches at his now-prominent withers and only a bit lower at the top of his hip, for all that the back in between has become rather swayed.
He has never been one for getting down on his knees and reaching under fences to reach grass or scattered bits of feed like my school horse does. I would readily believe that horse would go down on both knees and crawl right under a four-foot barrier. But I can’t imagine Ichy doing that, never in a million years. Yet, with not a mark nor a scrape anywhere on his body, he managed to get in and himself to a bucket with a small scoop of bermuda pellets meant for the older mule’s evening meal.
I don’t know how he did it. But I do know we’d better all keep the gates and doors firmly latched or the senile old evil genius will find a way to do something unexpected.