A lesson in horse sense

A veteran trail horse’s unusual behavior leads to an important discovery—and a lesson in equine instinct.

Not long ago, I had a lesson in “horse sense,” courtesy of my Quarter Horse gelding, Bull.

I had been wanting to try my younger gelding on a trail ride, so one day I invited a friend to join us aboard Bull, an experienced trail horse. We headed up a path that Bull and I had taken many times. But at the top of a short hill Bull spooked. My friend encouraged him to move forward, but still he balked. 

Jeanne Mitman was surprised when her normally steady mount, Bull, repeatedly balked at going up a familiar trail. (Mary Phelps)

Not wanting to have an accident with either horse, we turned off the path into a field of corn stubble. Once away from the hill, Bull settled down and his normal demeanor returned: He was once again a steady but alert trail horse. But I had no clue to what had set him off. So, although my green horse had handled the ride satisfactorily, I knew I would need a session with the older horse.

The next weekend I headed out alone on Bull along the same route. Again, at the top of the hill, he spooked and spun. Bull and I had handled these situations before, so I kept him pointed forward and tapped him with my whip. He took a few tentative steps. I still could not detect the source of Bull’s anxiety, but I suspected he was reacting to the scent of a decaying carcass. 

A shocking discovery

Slowly, haltingly, we approached the section where the path crossed under high-tension wires attached to large utility towers. Then I heard it: a definite hum or buzz from above! 

I looked up and saw one of the wires was frayed, possibly from a lightning strike or an errant shot from a hunter’s rifle. Luckily, the wire was high enough for us to safely pass below it. So, I encouraged Bull forward and we cautiously proceeded under the humming wire, completing the trail ride without further incident.

Upon returning home I wondered about the safety of that path, since the weakened wire could possibly break. I contacted my father, who was superintendent of construction for the local utility, and gave him the location of the path. He forwarded this information to a crew, but they could not locate the defective wire.

During a summer job I had marked utility poles with aluminum numbers, so I knew the poles and towers were numbered according to their position on a map grid. If I obtained the numbers of the two supporting towers, I could diagram the location of the problem.

So, the next weekend I took Bull out to the site again with pencil and notebook. We braved underbrush and rough terrain to access the numbers of the towers at each end of the span containing the frayed section. I sketched a diagram to pinpoint the defect and gave it to my father, who again assigned it to a crew. A report soon followed: success! The foreman even joked about giving me a task code for the wire maintenance, but I figured Bull would need one as well, since it was he who had discovered the problem.

Mission accomplished

Again, I rode Bull to the location to survey the repair. Now when we reached the hilltop there was no spooking. I could see a neat, foot-long splice where the frayed wire had been. Even better—no humming or buzzing!

Since that experience I have always double-checked any area where my horse hesitated or shied unexpectedly. I had sensed the buzzing about 30 feet from its origin, but Bull had heard it 100 feet away with ears at least three times more sensitive than mine.

The lesson: Pay attention to your horse’s reactions—there could be something unusual in the vicinity that is nearly undetectable to you, and maybe even dangerous.

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