It happened after dark last night, out in the pasture. There was not any moonlight to speak of, which made navigating the field a difficult task. Just now it is a mass of frost daisies — pretty by daylight with their froth of white flowers, but a tumbled tangle of wiry stems, knee-high or taller, to trip one up at night.
Between ourselves, I should very much like to run a herd of goats through that field to reset the balance between grass and other plants, but what I have is four horses. Horses don’t eat frost daisies. Not even my threesome of small, rugged Galicenos will munch them down. So finding a horse in the two-acre pasture after dark is not easy.
At feeding time, I had already put little bay Margarita in the pen which she shares with my other mare, Bonita. But, in the interests of ensuring that each had her full meal, I had left Bonita loose out in the field with her bucket of feed hooked over a fence rail. Then I went off to care for several other things. I had a suspicion this might be a mistake. It was.
I had a suspicion this might be a mistake.
I came back to put her into the pen for the night. But meantime Bonita had finished eating and disappeared. I peered into the darkness; her pale buckskin coat had vanished somewhere into it, and I could only see the dark night, accented with tufts of even darker brush. There was no doubt she was away out in that field, and she expected me to hike up and down it till I discovered her munching away. She is quite gentle, and I knew she would come along back with me without difficulty. But first I must make the tiring tramp through invisible daisies with very tangibly tangled stems. This at the end of a long, stressful day.
I wasn’t feeling well. And I really didn’t feel like making that search.
Now, much like other horse breeds of Spanish origin, Galicenos have a natural propensity for herding. Margarita has more than once helped me catch and reassure Bonita when I needed to halter her in pen or corral. I thought of trying it again, this time over two acres.
I felt more than a little unsure of my strategy, but I slipped the gate of the pen open and let Margarita out into the dark pasture.
“Go find Bonita for me,” I told her, my better judgement shrieking that now I would have two horses to hunt through the daisies instead of just one.
I slipped the gate of the pen open and let Margarita out into the dark pasture.
Margarita stepped out promptly enough but then stayed by the fence because she had discovered the spot where some of Bonita’s feed had been scattered beneath the feed bucket. First things first.
I mentioned it again, “Would you go get Bonita for me, please? Bring her back here.”
Margarita continued checking the ground for bits that had been missed.
I sighed internally and walked away to the shed. For several minutes I was busy with other things, knowing that I now had two little mares to fetch back into that pen. Silly, lazy me.
Inside, the shed was a little brighter than outside. I had turned on the flashlight of my phone, then set it inside an old, empty, plastic coffee can that now serves as a feed measure. The light glowed through the can with a muted red that made the outdoors even more invisible.
As I finished pulling feed bags into place, I heard a sudden burst of hoofbeats. Two sets of galloping hooves arrived at the shed door with a flourish. Two noses poked into the dimly lit doorway, asking — no, demanding — apple and oat treats.
Margarita had taken her task seriously after all. She had gone out into the pasture and found Bonita. Instead of taking her back to the pen, she had brought her to me at the shed.
Wise horse. She knew where the treats were kept. So did Bonita.
Margarita had taken her task seriously.
I fumbled into the treat bag and doled out the cookies. Then I rattled some regular feed into a can and set off back to the pen, this time with my two little mares eagerly following.
Actually, I suspect that Bonita began to run back out into the field. I could judge only by my ears, but I heard another burst of galloping which sounded like a small skirmish; then I looked round to find both mares right alongside me (or, perhaps more accurately, alongside the can of feed) and walking politely.
Into the pen we all went. I shook feed into each feed bucket. Margarita’s dark shadow stopped at one bucket. Bonita’s silvery coat brushed along to the other. I stepped back out and shut their gate.
No searching through the pasture for errant horses. Margarita had brought herself and Bonita both, and all was well.
I had a few more things to finish at the shed. I completed the job, flipped off my phone light and closed the shed door for the night.
Out in the dense darkness again, I took the well-grazed route across to the main pasture gate. It opens just beside the girls’ pen so I peeked in at them.
Even in the dark I could see her bright, deep eyes asking me something.
Margarita had quit eating her hay and was looking at me. She walked over to me and stuck her dainty muzzle through the fence. Even in the dark I could see her bright, deep eyes asking me something.
I told her how sweet and pretty she was. Her soft muzzle still poked intently through the fence toward me, inquiring.
And then I realized.
“And you did a wonderful job, Rita,” I answered the insistent nose. “I very much appreciate it. Thank you!”
The muzzle pulled back from the fence. Satisfied with the assurance and a bit of praise, the small horse stepped back over to her pile of hay. In the darkness I could hear her happily munching again.
Sometimes I wonder why humans are considered to be smarter than horses. Especially than Galicenos. Last night I didn’t feel like there was much to choose between, not in basic intelligence, let alone in pure good nature.
“And you did a wonderful job, Rita,”
Note: Galicenos are a critically endangered breed of horses; fewer than one hundred are still known to the breed registry, making their preservation a matter of grave concern. Descendants of small, wild horses known from prehistoric times in northern Spain and Portugal, their ancestors arrived in Mexico with the early Spanish garrisons under Cortez. These were not the war horses of the conquistadors, but small riding and pack horses, rugged, intelligent, and capable of outworking horses twice their size.
Their herding instincts have been relied upon on cattle ranches in Mexico and Texas. Their stamina has taken them and their riders along many a backcountry road through difficult terrain. And their speed has seen them competing successfully against much better known breeds, while their small size and good temperament make them natural children’s mounts.
Sixty years ago, they numbered in the several thousands. Numbers plummeted, due to outcrossing and poor management — not of the horses, but of the breed registry, which led to lack of interest and a dwindling market.
They are well worth saving. Even in my brief experience with them, I have been astounded by both their native intelligence and their willingness and good nature.
And, yes, they take communication with humans to a very high level!