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When a Good Horse Goes Bad

Posted Jan 22 2013 6:00am
My horse, Atticus, is acting like an idiot.

Let me set the stage. Up until a few months ago he was living at a perfectly acceptable boarding facility. He was out on pasture 24/7 with a large herd. They had shelter, an automatic waterer, grass, hay … all the basics. I wasn’t looking to move him, but when a friend called to say she had an opening at her farm, I leapt at the chance. This is a "forever home" type of place — just 9 horses, acres and acres of pasture, a knowledgeable and devoted caretaker. In fact, the farm reminds me of the one my husband and I owned in Virginia, where Atticus lived after I first bought him.
 

For me, the biggest downside of moving to Colorado six years ago was giving up my long-held dream of keeping my own horse on my own property. Boarding just isn’t as much fun. However, after moving Atticus to my friend’s place I thought, "At last I’ve found him the perfect place." And it was … for about a month.

Oh sure, there were the usual "getting to know you" theatrics that invariably follow bringing a new horse into an established herd, but everyone quickly calmed down into one big happy family. Then Amigo arrived. Amigo is a 24-year-old, arthritic, Arab gelding. He does not want to rule the herd. He just wants to eat some grass and warm his old bones in the sun. But that’s not how Atticus sees it. Ever since Amigo’s arrival, Atticus has made it his sole purpose in life to GET AMIGO.

Before we realized the extent of the problem, Atticus ran Amigo through a wire fence (everyone is fine) and into a neighbor’s pasture. Needless to say, they are now separated, but every chance he gets (through the fence), Atticus tries to bite, kick, and generally bully Amigo relentlessly.

Amigo is obviously stressed by the situation, but Atticus isn’t happy either. Whenever I move him out of sight of the other horses, he goes completely bonkers. He whinnies frantically, sweats up a storm … he’s a nervous wreck. My read on the situation is that Atticus thinks that his hold on his place in the herd is tenuous at best, and with the arrival of Amigo, his survival depends on driving the interloper away.

I’m left with the question, "How do I convince a previously well-mannered and sweet 17-year-old gelding that the geezer in the next pasture is no threat?"

I’ve been working with him, but so far the situation is not improving. I’d much rather "train" our way out of this situation, but I have to admit, I’ve been doing a little research into reserpine — a drug that is the purified version of a substance found in the roots of plants used in traditional medicine to, among other things, treat insanity. In horses, it has a long-term sedating effect and a history of illicitly being used to "calm" horses before sales, shows, etc.

I don’t want to drug my horse, but I’ll consider it for the short term if it helps him calm down and see this situation more rationally. I just can’t face moving him … again.
 
 

Dr. Jennifer Coates
 
 
Image: Anastasija Popova / via Shutterstock
 
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