Boring is Okay

By Terry Golson

This is what we’ve been waking up to.

Some days it warms up to 12°F.

The animals need to have full bellies to cope with this. At Tonka’s barn, they’ve been getting extra hay.

Even more important than hay is water. If horses don’t drink, they get colic, which is distress in the digestive system. Sever colic can cause death. The horses have water buckets in their paddocks. But in these sub-zero temps, they freeze over quickly. The staff breaks ice and refreshes them.

Some days, it’s just too dangerous for the staff to take horses, feed, and water outside. The paths are plowed and sanded, but ice remains. When it’s windy, even the thickest of blankets on the horses, and insulated coats on the humans, can’t keep them comfortable. They all need (and prefer) to stay inside. It’s been too cold to ride (my cutoff is 15º, below which it’s not fun for horse or rider.)


But standing still has it’s own problems. Horses are designed to move 16 or more hours a day. I can’t provide that for Tonka, but I can walk him around the indoor.

During this deep freeze, I have set ourselves a goal of walking at least a mile and a half daily. That’s nothing like the dozen miles that Tonka should be doing, but it’s something. I could stand in the center of a circle and send him around me on a long rope called a lunge line, but it’s best for Tonka, coming back from his sacroiliac joint inflammation, to go forward in mostly straight lines. Besides, I need exercise, too. So, we walk.


Tonka says that this is boring. He lets me know by his facial expression.


Once in awhile I stop and give him a good head scratch. In the winter he gets dust dandruff and is so itchy. Tonka loves a good ear rub.

But the walking is still boring. Yesterday, Tonka tried to liven it up. He grabbed the lead line and tossed it around, like a dog does a rope. It was quite clever and funny, but I didn’t engage in the game, instead, I told him to settle down, and got on with our walk.

The way that I train Tonka involves two-way communication. I welcome the conversation. I don’t want a shut-down horse that dully obeys my commands. But, the reality is that Tonka is not a pet dog. It’s delightful when a dog says let’s play! by running up to you and dropping a ball at your feet. Watch geldings at play. They invite their friends to join in by swinging their heads and biting at each other’s faces. They stomp the ground. They wheel around in circles of flying hoofs. At his barn, a half-dozen people handle Tonka. They have jobs to do and a head-tossing, rope-grabbing horse would not be delightful, rather, he’d be a nuisance and possibly a danger. If I had Tonka in my backyard, and if I was his only caretaker, I could engage with him on some of his terms. I could put behaviors on what’s called stimulus control, I could ask for them on cue. But that’s a long process, and during the training, control is far from 100%. I can’t do this at a farm with other people. And that’s okay.

Tonka and I can still have conversations. In some of those discussions, I tell him that life isn’t always fun. Sometimes it’s boring. He sighs and says, yeah, I know. And then we plod on.

Today it’s supposed to reach 15°F. I can get in the saddle! When I’m on him, we can trot and canter, and go a couple of miles around the indoor. What we do will be more varied and engaging than our slow trudging around the ring. From the saddle, our conversation is fluid and constant, body to body, Each breath, each stride, each shift of balance, is part of the discussion. There are rewards for both of us. For Tonka, the movement itself is reinforcing, and there will be cookies.

Then we can go back to boring. Tonka will go back to placidly eating his hay. He’ll be led in and out of his paddock with no expectations of it being fun. It just is. I’ll go home and do laundry. Life is like that. And it’s okay.

15 thoughts on “Boring is Okay

  • Karen Pryor

    Beautiful essay, Terry. Also loved the photo of his tightened lips expressing dissatisfaction at boringness. How much they tell us if you know their faces.

  • Jan

    Really feel for you that is very cold. We have been lucky in that we have not had the cold our temp is around 8c dropping to around 1 or -1c at night but, the down side is we are getting constant rain and heavy winds we have not had any decent sun for weeks. The fields for the Horses are boggy up to knee deep in places and I am so pleased I made the extra covered area’s for the girls other wise they would need webbed feet. Please stay safe and warm with all that ice. 🙂

    • Terry Golson Post author

      Thank you! Not only does observation help us to get the behavior that we want, and prevent misunderstandings, but it’s so much more fun to understand what our animals are saying, isn’t it? 🙂

  • Rebecca Stedman

    Love the pic of you and Tonka! It’s 24* here in Gatlinburg. I am sitting by the wood stove with a coffee. At least it is sunny today. Stay cozy

  • Tracy

    When I owned horses, I loved being with them every single day I could do so. But I confess, those bitter winter days did make some mornings tough. Your feet are frozen, your fingertips are frozen and your face is numb. Like you, I would notice that water consumption would drop. And worry. Below about 15 degrees, evening grain would be turned into a slurry with very warm, almost hot, water. I didn’t turn it into a mash with lots of bran, but just added hot water to their sweet feed. Although the amount of water added was probably minimal compared to the body weight of any horse, for some reason, they would drink straight water long and hard after they finished their ‘hot dinner’. I don’t know why, but it worked with almost every horse; somehow, it stimulates a thirst.

    • Terry Golson Post author

      Fortunately, Tonka is in an old, wooden, well-insulated barn with 18 other horses. So far, inside, the water has stayed a comfortable level for him to drink. But the barn staff have so much extra work. The hose has to be put into the heated tack room at night, etc. etc. It’s not easy, but they’re doing it!

  • Gin

    Terry, you must be one tough woman, 15°? At least you have an indoor place to ride. It’s been unusually cold here also, below zero a lot of the mornings and not above freezing at all. I have stock tank heaters so the horses have plenty of water, and they are in the pasture all day so they get exercise. I’ve been putting them in the barn at night and they seem to be doing fine. It takes so much longer to take care of all the animals in this weather, but I enjoy doing it. It’s dry here though, no ice or snow. Actually we need some snow or rain, we are in a severe drought right now, unlike Jan who is having way too much rain. I really, really don’t like mud.

    Once again, I enjoyed your post. It’s always nice to see you pop up in my email saying you have another blog.

  • Gin

    Saw your video of the snowstorm on FB. Wow! Stay safe driving out to see Tonka, and anywhere else you have to go.

  • Jodie

    I always love reading your posts, and especially gleaning little insights into your work with Tonka and your incredible patience and observation. These help to remind me to take a step back from my work with horses and just listen to them and see what’s going on.

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