All of my younger equestrian life I was told horses have far better defensive senses (hearing, vision, smell) than dogs, and I was aware of it, but not in any dramatic way. (To qualify that statement, their vision, while extraordinarily sensitive, is not particularly acute.) But about twenty or twenty-five years ago the truth of that statement was made abundantly clear.
I was deer hunting in the Toiyabe Range in central Nevada at about ten thousand feet. This is vast and remote country and we had ridden in—a full day’s ride—with our outfitter and his wife and their dog, a German shepherd, fully trained for Schutzhund work. Schutzhund, in case you’re unfamiliar with it, is the sport originally developed by German trainers and breeders in the early 1900s as a means of testing a dog’s ability for police and military work. It has evolved into a demanding sport enjoyed around the world, and our outfitter’s wife was a serious competitor. She and the dog would remain in camp while we hunted, and in the evening, when we rode back, we would be greeted by the deep warning bark of the dog long before we could see the tents.
One evening we had come back early and were sitting around the fire enjoying a little water-of-life, watching the last pink glow of the day. I happened to be facing the picket line where our horses were tied with their nose bags on. Suddenly a dozen heads came up and the little herd focused intently on something down the trail. They remained focused, not even eating. Instinctively, I glanced down at the magnificent German shepherd. He was dozing peacefully at his mistress’s feet. I waited to see what would happen.
Probably three full minutes went by, and suddenly that massive dog leapt up and starting barking. Two minutes after that another outfitter rode up the trail leading two pack horses and two hunters. They stopped and chatted for a moment, refused our offer of a drink, and rode on, but what remained with me was the memory of that lag of time between the horses’ awareness and the dog’s.
So when I came out of the house to feed this morning and saw my horses all focused on something beyond the barn, I stopped and looked. The house sits on a rise above the barn, so I had a better vantage point than the horses, but it still took me about a minute before I saw them, a pack of five coyotes gliding through the untended land beyond my property line. The fence on the edge of my property is a quarter of a mile from the house and the coyotes were another two hundred yards out in the high brush, but the horses had seen or heard or smelled or sensed them.
I don’t worry about my horses, but a pack of five coyotes would make short work of my Boxer who is long on courage and love, but short on any true aggressive ability, so I hustled him back into the house and watched the pack as they hunted their way down the valley. Why they were still out and about so close to sunrise I couldn’t say. Perhaps they had had a bad night of hunting. Perhaps it was two parents teaching their pups. Perhaps some irresistible smell had drawn them down the mountain in the last pre-dawn hours. Perhaps—and I know coldly scientific types will sniff at this, but I have seen wild animals at play, both singly and in groups—they were just enjoying themselves for their own reasons.
Whatever. It was lovely to see. And it reaffirmed the lesson: always trust your horse.