Have you ever noticed how your pets are way more confident in your presence than they are when a stranger enters their home?
Recently I was visiting my friend Melissa. Her guinea pigs just adore her and take every opportunity to greet and chat to her whenever she approaches. Yes, Melissa does provide her boys with food and water, they even get taken by her inside every evening, to ensure they never overheat or get too cold.
Melissa's guinea pigs love and trust her. She is truly their human. However, I am not. When I approached Melissa's guinea pigs, they took shelter in a safe place while they checked me out. They repeated this behaviour every time I approached. This is because I am a stranger. I have not built the same trust with her boys that Melissa has. For all they know, I may be a very big predator about to eat them!
My own guinea pigs always greeted and chatted with me the moment I entered the backyard. However, if a stranger arrived, like Melissa's guinea pigs, they would head for cover to make sure they were safe.
If you own a cat, dog or even a horse, you will be aware of what behaviours your animal(s) use to greet your arrival. Some dogs even turn summersaults of excitement when their human arrives home. All my horses would always give me a welcoming whinny of greeting and my dear Moggy Boy, would come running and smooch, following me around when ever I arrived home. A previous cat would wait for me to arrive home from on top of a pillar, at the gate.
Animals can be quite different with how they greet their favourite person in the world, but one thing is for sure, they can and will recognise the humans that regularly love and care for them and acknowledge this in their behaviour. They often reward us with undying loyalty once we establish trust with them. They will be more confident around that person, always. Even our hereford cows would be wary of strangers, as opposed to being friendly and confident around familiar humans.
This is why it is vitally important that you observe what is normal and repeated behaviour in your animal(s). It is also important, when bringing a new animal into your life that you introduce it gently to your world and gain its confidence by offeriing it regular nutritious food, a constant supply of fresh water and lots of specific individual attention and care, appropriate to the species. Don't ovewhelm it with affection for hours at a time in its first days with you. Give it some time out to rest up.
A funny case in point is the day I had an animal photographer here, doing a shoot with my menagerie. All went well with Whippet Boy and my Moggie. Then came time to shoot with the chickens. I led Peter down to chookyard and decided we might go for something arty; in this case, me lying on the ground, with my chooks dining on top of me.
Problem number one. Peter was an unfamiliar human. Problem number two was that I didn't want to lie in chook poo, so spead out a big purple sheet to lie on. Peter was then going to dot me with food and the girls would oblige by eating it off me.
In my pursuit of art, I forgot my girls were simply chickens. Yes, Peter, was not someone they knew, however, I made the situation way worse, by introducing a big flappy bit of fabric. My girls would have been thinking giant scary predator, not mum with food. They beat a hasty retreat under the safety of the fig tree. No amount of coaxing would get them out, until I got rid of that scary fabric and asked Peter to back off. Once they relaxed, the girls were happy to oblige for photos in a natural, familiar setting.
The point here is that we should never forget that our pets are not human. They come to us as descendants of their wild forbears. Horses and cows are herd animals on the look out for big prey animals. Dogs are pack animals, descended from wolves. Cats are solitary. Both are hunters. Small animals, like rabbits, guinea pigs and birds, including chickens, are at the bottom of the food chain and on the look out for predators constantly.
As a pack animal your dog must be put in its place. Humans are at the top of the pack. The dog is on the bottom of that scale. Your cat will come to you when it chooses. You can not call the shots with a cat, they are notorious as independant thinkers. As for those animals we keep that are used to being on the lookout for predators themselves, be gentle and reassuring in their presence. You will soon be accepted as friend, not foe.
However, remember that everytime you bring a new person into their territory, they too will have to earn the trust of your animals to be regarded as part of the family.
Observe your own animals' behaviours as consciously as you possibly can. You will never stop learning from them.
They will demonstrate passive and agressive behaviours, excitement, fear, hunger, contentment and temperature sensitivity. Recognising these behaviours can help you in the process of meeting their needs as well as in their training and interaction with you.
A novice rider requires a quiet steady mount that will give it’s rider confidence and help her gain skills as a rider and in looking after her pony, safely and without tears or hopefully , major accidents or injuries.
My dad didn’t realise this when buying my first pony. Instead he believed if he bought me a newly broken gelding, we could “grow up together”. A big mistake!
Jason, the pony concerned soon realised my inexperience, matched his own. We were our own worst enemies. I was unable to school him into the pony he could be and he taught me nothing to further my own skill as an equestrian.
Instead, he was fabulous at throwing me off, or taking off, leaving me to spend more time on the ground, than in the saddle.
Luckily my dad soon realised the mistake he’d made. He sent Jason off to an experienced rider, who had grown up on the back of a horse for further education and he was then sold to an experienced rider.
Meanwhile our farrier came up with a fabulously gentle Exmoor pony that needed rehoming due to being outgrown. Trixie was a bombproof and quiet 15 year old mare, who was perfect for me to learn much from.
Even more amazingly, she was being offered as free to a good home.
It was love at first sight between the two of us and Trixie and I spent many happy years together.
Not only did Trixie help me along the path to being an accomplished equestrian, she also offered her experience and patience to a number of my friends, whom I taught to ride on her.
She even provided a mount for my uncle, who had not ridden for 30 years to enjoy a morning’s hacking with me, after I acquired my second pony. Roly was an exceptional and gallant Australian Pony, as gentle and well -mannered as Trixie, but more able to meet my own needs as I developed in confidence, knowledge and skills as an equestrian. He had more get up and go as a Pony Club mount, as well as fabulous confirmation for the show ring.
Both Trixie and Roly were perfect ‘School Child’s Ponies. The sort you could do summersaults under, crawl safely between their legs, double dink on and even stand on, or do summersaults on top of.
Neither was totally perfect. Sometimes Trixie would play “catch me if you can” and also would charge strangers she didn’t like. Once caught, she was as obliging as ever. Trixie had a weight problem and needed to be locked up to prevent her over-eating and foundering, so her waistline and diet needed constant monitoring.
Roly had wall eyes, with limited pigment and this would lead to him having problems with conjunctivitis, carried by flies in summer. He hated being washed, whereas Trixie would come trotting up for a spray with the hose on hot days.
Roly also had two other quite funny idiosyncrasies. One was to enjoy just standing on the tips of your toes as you walked or groomed him. The other was his capacity as an escape artist. He would squeeze under fences and learned how to open gates by working the catch with his teeth. This ensured every access gate to the road on our farm was locked.
However, these quirks of both Trixie and Roly had nothing to do with their appropriateness as beginners mounts. On that count, both were ideal.
Another hint is to take the pony on trial for at least two weeks before purchase, to ensure your child and the prospective pony are a suitable match.
Disreputable owners have been known to drug horses to make the prospective buyer believe they are purchasing a quiet pony, when in fact the horse concerned has genuine problems.
I cannot recommend highly enough, the wonderful work the Pony Club movement does with developing the knowledge and skills of riders well into their teens.
There are exceptional Pony Clubs at Ballarat, Smythesdale and Beaufort, all who provide instruction, support and competitions that are geared to the rider and mounts level of experience.
I was a member of Beaufort Pony Club and found the social side as enriching as our instruction. I met many friends with whom I could “talk horses” and my two favourite instructors and mentors have a place in my heart to this day, as amongst the most significant and wonderful adults and teachers I have been privileged to know!
Both horses and Pony Club have left an indelible mark on my life and a lifelong passion and skill as a horse woman.
I did fall off “at least seven times” as one is supposed to do in the pathway to becoming an experienced equestrian, but those mishaps were never serious.
Having the ongoing responsibility of keeping a horse and the unique bond your form with each individual animal is one of the most enriching and rewarding experiences it is possible to have in life.
If you are in the position to be able to keep a horse and exercise and train it regularly it is amongst the ultimate of human animal bonds and like no other!
Bear in mind the cost of horse keeping are significant. There are feed bills and possibly agistment as well as farriers to pay regularly. Veterinary call out fees and health checks do not come cheap and should your pony develop a chronic health problem or injury you can easily be up for thousands of dollars, so insurance is advisable.
Horses require a lot of specialist equipment, everything from a halter, bridle saddle, bandages for travelling, a grooming kit, hiring or buying a horse float should you want to be involved at Pony Club or other equestrian competitions and a vehicle powerful enough to tow it. Then there is basic safety gear of riding boots and crash helmet. That is only the start of it. Competitive riding involves specialist gear at “specialist gear prices’!
However, I would not begrudge a penny of this as a parent, if I were in a position to give a child a leg up into the world of horses. My equestrian days are amongst the happiest, most rewarding and proudest achievements of my life. Horses kept me interested, active and occupied at the stage of my life when children can go astray and get into the wrong crowd, or stop exercising in favour of screen entertainment and pursuits.
That said keeping a pony should never be forced on a child. Riding is a two way partnership between rider and horse. From hacking around paddocks and roads, to stock work, the show circuit or eventing and dressage, or endurance riding, all begin with a child’s experience of their first pony.
That is why that first pony choice is so vital!
I also look back in awe at the amount of time my dad was prepared to commit to driving my horses and I to Pony Club and competitions and the patience and tolerance of my mum as she put up with horse gear being laundered in the washing machine, tack cleaning in our living area as I prepared for shows and the amount of time she spent alone as my dad and I were off working with and enjoying our horses.
Yes, keeping a horse is a very major commitment indeed!
Only by knowing how your pet acts and reacts when it is happy and healthy can we read the sometimes subtle clues to when it may not be well.
I remember years ago arriving at our farm, not to be greeted by a welcoming whinny from my pony Roly.
Instead he was listless, lifting his feet one at a time towards his stomach.
This was not his usual behaviour. By now he should have been trotting up and nuzzling at me.
His head moved from side to side regularly towards his stomach.
Our other horses too, were unusually quiet, empathising with his extreme pain.
Recognising the symptoms of colic, a potentially fatal condition in horses, as well as the almost eerily unusually quiet behaviour, even of our other horses and the resident magpies, we rang the vet immediately.
My dad and I took turns in walking him, to prevent him rolling and potentially twisting his intestine, on what seemed the coldest night of the year, complete with a heavy frost and bitingly cold air.
Eventually the vet arrived and confirmed my own observation based diagnosis and worst fear.
With an arm up my beloved pony’s anus he diagnosed colic, brought about by a blockage obstructing his bowel.
We watched in awe as the vet skilfully manoeuvred a tube down Roly’s nostril into his stomach and poured in several gallons of oil.
Roly’s ultimate relief, and our own, came several hours later when the biggest gush of oily horse manure I have ever witnessed cleared his bowel of the obstruction.
Skills of observation and an immediate call to a highly skilled equine vet, saved my pony’s life that night!
Fiona Ludbrook is the Client Services Director of Pets and Plants Ballarat. Now, entrepreneur and blogger, she was born and bred in Ballarat, but spent many years as a teacher in Melbourne’s