We have a new problem with our old family pony. Pokey is a Shetland gelding that we have had since our first of five daughters was five years old. We figured he was about 10 years old in 1978 when we got him, so he is now just over 30. Pokey has always been an absolute joy of a character--no care, laid back, 100% trustworthy around kids, and there for us whenever we needed him. He's done lead-line, driving, and kids' parties, and gets along well with anyone and any horse. He loves attention, even from the vets. We trim his feet about once a year, and he's always great. He's been as healthy and sound as when we first got him. So, of course, we've been planning that Pokey will make it through to the grandchildren.

Well, to our recent problem. Believe it or not, Pokey had never had his teeth floated. He has always stayed fairly fat at pasture, with just a little hay in the worst of the winter. A couple of months ago the dentist was here, and we decided to have her take a look at Pokey. He came right up to us and let her check him out with no problem. She found a couple of points, and agreed that while she was at it she could do a little bit that might help him chew better. We all agreed he should be fine without a tranquilizer. Well, she had hardly even put the float into Pokey's mouth when he just flipped out. With the first contact of the float to his teeth, he squealed and went right up into the air and over backwards. Of course, we were startled, and I let out a scream myself. He scrambled up and ran off. We tried to catch him, but he wouldn't let us near him. We were happy that he didn't break his neck, and I insisted that it just wasn't worth it to go any further.

To make a long story short, ever since that day Pokey has not been the same old happy pony we knew for 20 years. He doesn't come up to us anymore, and is actually fairly head-shy. He seems fine left alone, but whenever we are near him, he's got that cautious eye on our every move. I've heard that ponies can hold a grudge, but this whole episode is so out of character for a pony that has given lots of people second chances over the years. We have tried the slow, gentle approach, but things have not been improving. Any ideas on what to try with this old grump?

Laura, Maryland

I know that ponies are all unique individuals, and they can sometimes surprise you with uncharacteristic responses or grudges. But I agree with you that this is well out of character for an old, trusted friend. First, the instantaneous flip-out from what sounded like a very compliant, calm start with the dentist might be the most important clue that this is not primarily a behavior problem.

It's hard to imagine that even with a fairly novel experience of having a metal tool inserted into his mouth that Pokey would respond so explosively unless something really hurt him. Squealing and going over backward is usually not the first sign of resistance for such an animal to dental floats. So, before anything else, I would explore the possibility of a source of genuine pain in his mouth or somewhere else around his head that might have been inadvertently aggravated during the dental procedure. This might have caused the explosive reaction and might now be a factor in his continued head shyness and change in behavior.

Some horses, and particularly Shetland ponies, can be fairly stoic with chronic pain. Things can be pretty bad, and they still look fairly healthy and normal if left alone in a pasture. Then some minor manipulation can seem unbearable to them.

Another possibility is that Pokey was fine before the dental episode, but was truly startled. As he reacted, he might have incurred an injury to his head or mouth that exacerbated his cause for the initial reaction and is causing his current behavior change. So, you'll want to have his favorite vet out for a thorough exam and treatment of anything you find.

Whether or not you find and correct a source of physical pain, I would recommend continuing your gentle approach to gain back his confidence. The prognosis usually is good (even for old ponies) that they will regain trust and compliance.

Strange Diet

Why do horses eat dirt? There is a place that I drive by on the way home from work where two horses are eating a big deep hole in the ground. It is several inches deep and a couple of feet wide, and it is right near a hay bunk. Even when there is hay in the rack, they eat the dirt. They scratch in the dirt with their hooves and teeth, and their muzzles, teeth, and tongues get all muddy and gritty. The other day it looked like one was bullying the other one away as if it was guarding the hole in the ground.

Carlos, Pennsylvania

I have seen what you are describing, and it sure does look weird. In every case I have seen where a big hole developed, the horses were eating soil exactly where a salt or mineral block had been. No doubt a fair amount of salt or mineral dissolves with weather and is deposited in the soil around the block. These supplements are attractive to animals, enough that one horse will guard the hole from another as you describe.

People often put the supplement blocks near a hay rack, so I'll bet that's the case. In one instance, I remember horses eating away a pit into the soil in a field where the block had been there at least a year before the horses were put into the field. When the horses arrived, they apparently found the salty soil on their own. It was just a bare spot where grass had not grown. So in that case, it wasn't out of old habit or experience with the salt block itself.

I also once watched some horses eat an entire old wooden mineral feeding trough in a cattle pasture where they had been turned out years after the cattle and the mineral supplement were gone. 

About the Author

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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