Bizarre Behavior

Dr. Sue McDonnell addresses readers’ questions about an older pony’s grumpy behavior and why horses might eat dirt.
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Q: 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

A: 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

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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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