Recently my sweet constant companion barn cat, Bill, was killed by a coyote.
I had just let him out of his safe nighttime enclosure in the morning, I fed the barn horses, and then opened the barn door to start feeding outside.
The horses were looking at something, on alert, and my mule, Bentley, was pacing the fence, head up and down like he was looking for a way to get through the fence to get to something. I looked where he was looking, but at first only saw small group of magpies. Since that seemed unlikely to generate such a protective response from Bentley I hurried over to see what was going on, and saw the coyote with Bill in its mouth. I chased it, screaming and trying to get it to drop him, but to no avail.
Obviously, it was a traumatic incident to witness. I have had some expected reactions: I am scared to death to let my little dog get more than a few feet from me – she thinks I’ve lost my mind looming over her while she poops 😉 – and I don’t even like to see photos of coyotes, unfollowing a favourite wildlife photography group on Facebook as every time I see them I’m right back chasing that coyote across the field.
But, really unexpectedly, I have also developed an aversion to magpies.
Previously, I had a very good association with magpies. I think they’re beautiful, clever birds, and am amused by their antics and their funny noises. Yet having them just mildly associated with this one traumatic event, and my heart jumps into my throat when I see them, like I expect something awful to happen again just because they’re there.
It got me thinking about horses, and how they can have what we consider an unreasonable response to something innocuous, or something that they’ve never minded before.
We tend to want to dissect their behaviour, figure out why they have that scary association with something not scary at all. Or worse, we want to punish their response, and say they’re just being naughty because we can’t think of a single reason for their fear. But maybe it’s something like the magpies, something that just happened to be there right before a scary thing happened to them, and it formed an association in their brain.
It’s easy to say that the horse is being ridiculous, but it doesn’t do any harm to give them the benefit of the doubt. Fear is a physiological response, and not one that they are able to control. My conscious brain knows very well that there is nothing to fear from magpies, but my unconscious is still screaming “SOMETHING BAD IS GOING TO HAPPEN” at me every time I see them. And if someone tried to get me over it by telling me I was crazy, or smacking me for hesitating when I see one, it would only increase my fear and turn it into a full blown phobia.
I’ll be fine – I’ll always miss Bill, but with a bit of time I’ll enjoy magpies and even coyotes again.
But the next time your horse spooks at “nothing” or suddenly acts afraid of something they never minded before, think of me and the magpies and be patient with them. You don’t know what trauma might have informed their response.