Horseblog Classic: The Don’ Wannas

Every so often, when a Horseblog falls on a holiday and our Horseblogger suffers an attack of the Don’Wannas, we reach into the vault and pull out an oldie but goodie. This one, from 2011, is just as apposite now as then. Enjoy!

This was going to be a nice substantive post about horse feet, with links and details and all that.

But it’s dead-dog August and it’s hot and its sticky  and I’ve been working all day and I’m cranky and I don’ wanna.

I don’ even wanna keep looking through my voluminous photo files for the particularly perfect picture of the pissy horse that I know is there. I just don’ wanna. So have a deadpan cat instead.

It’s that time of year in the Northern Hemisphere. Isn’t just humans that aren’t in the mood. Horses suffer from it, too. And they’re stuck outside without air conditioning, in nasty-biting-fly season, which is also ohgod-itchy-mane and ye-gods-crumbly-feet season.

But life must go on, and for a horse, that means as much work as he or his owner can stand. Not a lot if it’s terribly hot and/or humid, but still, a little is good for human and beast.

Horses are as varied in their personalities as humans are, and run a wide gamut of energy levels, talent, perseverance, and plain old work ethic. There are lazy horses, and there are overachiever horses. There are horses that love to work and horses that would rather lounge around all day in the clover.

What there aren’t all that many of are horses that make excuses not to do their jobs. That’s a human aberration. If a horse don’ wanna, there’s always a reason, though it won’t always make sense to the human who has to deal with it.

And there may be a fair amount of dealing to be done. A half-ton prey animal with highly evolved flight reflexes combined with strong herd instincts is going to show his objections to the situation in sometimes dramatic fashion. He may spook or shy, rear, veer, spin, and/or bolt, and he may not give much warning before he hits the afterburners. The result for the human will range from slamming everything to a halt and getting the horse back with the program, to being carried off without much control over the situation, to going splat while the horse disappears into the distance.

But equine objections are not always or even all that often so dramatic. They can manifest as reluctance to do what the human asks, apparent stubbornness or laziness, fussing, head-tossing, biting or kicking at the human or her leg or whip if she is in the saddle, bucking, backing, speeding up and refusing to slow down, interpreting the human’s signals as the complete opposite of what they actually mean, and so on and on.

Whatever happens, the clear indication is that there has been a communications breakdown, and the human has to figure out what is wrong and then fix it. This does not mean beating the crap out of the horse, though at times a firm correction may be called for. Nor does it mean backing off completely and letting the horse go berserk. There is a middle ground of fast, carefully calibrated action, aimed at getting the horse’s attention, conveying the human’s intentions, and resolving matters in a way that is safe for both parties.

Say the horse is out on the trail and comes to a stream. The horse is convinced that the water is nine thousand miles deep and he will, if forced to step in it, sink down forever and never be seen again. As far as his vision is concerned, this is totally true, and his instincts tell him that when encountering any unknown obstacle, his best course of action is to turn around and make a rapid retreat. After all, it might eat him.

But you, the monkey on his back, have other ideas. You know with your full-frontal stereo vision that the water is at most six inches deep, and the bottom is solid enough not to swallow you both up once you get to the middle. You refuse to let him spin around and bolt. You insist that he go forward.

This is a classic contretemps. His perceived interests are at complete odds with what you perceive as the mutual interest. Depending on his personality and your riding style and skills, he will do one or more of the following: Stop and refuse to move. Stop and back up fast. Spin and try to bolt. Dart sideways. Buck (and possibly try to get you off–but not always; sometimes he’s just making a point). You will, in the meantime, use reins and legs to keep him from turning or spinning, try not to grab his mouth so hard he rears (and possibly slips and falls over backwards), and push him forward with your legs, sometimes assisted by a whip if you carry one (though if you hit too hard, he may buck or bolt forward so fast you go off, or else dig in and totally refuse to budge).

Persistence wins. As does the ability to judge when the horse is about to blow in one direction or another. It also helps to know what he’s likely to do in a given situation–I have one mare who will shut her brain off until a certain point, then make a flying leap over the obstacle. She’ll do her best to keep me in the middle, but I’d better not get taken off guard or I might go splat.

It can take enormous patience to deal with a horse who don’ wanna. It can also take a certain amount of respect for what he’s telling you. Every so often, an absolute refusal can save your life–if the riverbank is about to give way or there’s an alligator in the water or a mountain lion in the trees. Communication goes both ways, and it isn’t always the human who knows best.


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Horseblog Classic: The Don’ Wannas — 17 Comments

  1. It’s kind of like writing. You’re told what you’re doing isn’t working but you know better. But sometimes — you are wrong and the critic/ beta reader / editor is right! How are you going to know for certain, and then how do you deal?

    Love, C.

  2. Sherwood–that’s what the human aboard has to figure out. Is the horse objecting because it’s new or because there’s a greater danger than the human perceives? That’s where the human knowing the horse’s typical reactions usually makes a difference.

    Some horses are Drama Queens by nature, and crossing water is a virtuoso performance. But a typically non-drama horse who suddenly turns into Drama Horse raises a huge red flag for the savvy horseman.

    Generally, if the horse escalates beyond a certain level of appropriate concern in vocal expressions (intensity of snorting, roller nostrils–if you’ve ever heard the roller nostril alarm with nostrils spread to their widest and the sound of the snort seems as if it’s turning and rolling in those nostrils, unmistakeable sound that raises the hair on the back of your neck, you never forget it) and nonverbal expressions (pinned ears, wide eyes with white all around and popping out of the skull almost), and feel the horse wanting to jump out of their skin underneath you…you know you’ve got an issue. Either there’s something going on or the horse is thoroughly convinced something is going on. In either case you have seconds to deal with it before horse explodes in full-out fight or flight mode. Freeze generally isn’t a horsey reaction. But if a horse goes into freeze mode, be very afraid. It’s bad.

  3. I’ve always thought that, in nasty sticky weather, most horses show exemplary patience and forbearance, what with the itchy and the flies and the omg hot. I complain if I’m made to walk in those conditions. Horses sometimes even gallop.

  4. Sherwood–you’re welcome.

    Kari–my mare actually loves the heat and performs harder than she does in the cold. I blame the fact that both her sire and dam come from Texas.

  5. So, if you go and jump in the water to prove its depth, will the horse get the point? Or maybe that’s giving in too easily, and if you do it the horse will expect you to personally investigate every bush?

  6. Foxessa: Very true. 🙂

    Kari, most horses do prefer cooler weather, and hot weather makes them slower, but they’ll still go whee when the impulse strikes.

    Alex, sometimes you can get off and lead a horse, especially if he’s learned to trust you. He probably won’t demand that you do it all the time. Eventually he’ll get the message that if you say something is OK, it probably is. Then if he’s still freaky, you can figure there really is something to be wary of.

  7. I just read Mark Rashid’s book Life Lessons from a Ranch Horse, which is a specific and well-described instance of a Non-Drama-Queen horse balking very occasionally. Rashid observed the behaviour and thought about it very hard, and came to the realization that the horse was indeed trying to communicate very complex truths to his rider: in this case, about when the younger colts the two of them were working with had reached their limit and were about to explode.

    It’s a great book. I was reminded very much of the horse I had as a teenager, a very very Non-Drama-Queen Arabian gelding named Alfie. We were riding through a quarry one evening and he stopped in the middle of the trail for no apparent reason. When I finally prevailed on him to move forward we quickly sank hock-deep into invisible mud. I’ve no idea how he knew it was there, but I listened to him a lot more respectfully after that.

  8. Oh yeah. You learn to tell what’s Dramaaaaa! and what’s serious. Sometimes the hard way.

    Horses are always honest. The trick is to figure out what that honesty is telling you.

    Rashid is great. I love that particular book. (Sherwood: I keep it in the guest room. 🙂 )

  9. I used to be very doctrinaire about stream crossing w/babies (Ve have vays of making you go forward) but any more, if everything is set for success, i.e. good crossing, helpful old horse leader, and things aren’t working, i do get off and lead them over- sometimes the rider (me) flopping to and fro as they flop to and fro distracts them from the actual task.

  10. P>S>…what can you say about their feet right now except that the ground is like cement and dont be surprised if they’re sore ow ow ow (I hate summer- dont even mention the bugs)

  11. “Freeze mode” is an ancestral memory of Shelob, or worse.

    I got a really bad case of the don’ wannas myself late last week and solved it by basically firing all my remaining clients and rewriting my LinkedIn profile to say, simply: Science fiction writer. Should be interesting.

      • Having left my day job earlier this year, I’m now working on doing all those projects I’ve always said I want to do, but I’m struggling with some of the don’ wannas with that, too. I do wanna, but I also like the idea of not having any obligations, at least for awhile. Maybe now that it’s September, I’ll get back on board.

        • Yep. That’s how it is here. Must apply seat of pants to seat of chair and Get To Work. Now that the Labor Day has given us leave to, you know, labor.