Tonka is Ticked Off

By Terry Golson

Yesterday Tonka was ticked off at me. He made it very clear.

I had to look back through my archives to find a photo to illustrate his demeanor. This does it. Pinned ears, narrow nostrils, tight lips, tense neck, eyes showing some white.

This is a pissed off horse.


My visit to the barn didn’t start like that. When I arrived, Tonka nickered a hello and was quite cheerful.


He willingly followed me into the grooming stall, but as soon as I reached out a brush towards him, his head went up and he gave me the stink eye.

I touched him gently. He didn’t relax. If anything, Tonka glared harder.

I brought out a banana. Tonka knows that he’s only fed when he’s relaxed (not just looking away, as some clicker trainers teach.) Tonka looked at the banana. He looked at me. He softened his muscles and his nose came down. The body language was right – except for the eyes. Those never softened. He was resigned but not happy. The effort was so obvious that I almost laughed. I fed Tonka the banana. As soon as he finished chewing the banana, his head went right back up and he pinned his ears as flat as he could.

Message received.

I stepped back and assessed. What was I missing? It finally dawned on me.

The weather this past week has been drenchingly humid and very hot. I’ve arrived at the barn every morning at 7:30 to ride before the worst of it. The horses are being turned out for only half-days, because they prefer the shade and the fans in their stalls to their paddocks. Also, this weather seems to have supercharged the late season horse flies that have become the size of my thumb. So, I agree with the barn management that less turnout is the right thing, however, I don’t like my horse to stand in his stall for 18 hours. So, I’ve been returning in the evenings to hand-walk Tonka and let him graze on the lawn.

No wonder Tonka was angry at me. I’d established a schedule, which suited him, and then it stopped abruptly. On this day, I didn’t ride in the morning (he does enjoy that attention and the movement) and then when I arrived in the evening, instead of taking him out to grass, I kept him in the barn to groom him.

Once I realized how I’d let Tonka’s expectations down, all I had to do to make amends was to take him out for a graze.

Just five minutes was all it took to change Tonka’s mood.

When I brought him back into the grooming stall, he stood contentedly while I brushed him. He even leaned into the curry when I scratched his favorite places. All was forgiven.

And then we had a very, very good ride.

Which just goes to show that not all behavior “problems” should be solved with training or rewarding the desired demeanor. Sometimes all it takes is a sincere apology to your horse for letting him down, and then some companionable time out on grass.

19 thoughts on “Tonka is Ticked Off

  • Robin

    I’m always amazed and amused by how much dogs, cats, horses, etc. can be creatures of habit, just like us, and annoyed or anxious by changes. We have more in common than not. 🙂

  • Helen

    I bet Tonka was thinking that for a human, you do catch on pretty quickly. What a great lesson. Thank you for sharing.

    • Terry Golson Post author

      That’s the challenge with horses! We want them to express themselves, but only within reason. I need to write a post about how horses that have never had a say, and then are introduced to clicker training, can express themselves dangerously (beyond rudeness with food.) Other animals can “misbehave” but we’re not on their backs, and they don’t have flying hooves. Because I can read Tonka’s body language, and know how to diffuse it, his stink eye didn’t turn into something much worse. It’s complicated!

  • Chickencarol

    I love how in tune you are and that you work out where the problem is. It’s funny that although I don’t know horses except from you, I can see the anger in his eye in that first photo and that is without taking into account the position of his ears. Animals do forgive us quickly though. I love that my chickens never hold a grudge after I have had to do something (for their own good) that they may not like. As long the treats come from me I am always greeted enthusiastically and they seem happy to have me hang out with them.

    • Terry Golson Post author

      It’s so much better to work out the problem than to deal with an animal who is frustrated and feels that there’s no outlet for him. You’re right about chickens – no grudges. And always delighted to see you! My rabbit, Phoebe, on the other hand, holds grudges. Forget the carrot one night, and she shuns me the next.

  • Jan

    Love the pics and blog. It always amazes me how animals can communicate to us when something is wrong, mind you we do need to be in tune with our friends. Jess is having a quieter time where she is working as the Hunter ponies and Shetlands have a summer break ready for shows in the autumn and winter, but she is still kept busy as they have four ponies that they use for general riding so she has to exercise, groom and muck out still.
    The joys of being a stable girl but she loves it 🙂

  • deb odom

    learning to listen and think about cause, and not react and correct those kind of changes in behavior is something I’m working really hard at, and your posts and encouragement are very helpful. I see a difference in my horses. Thank you.

  • Kim Walnes

    GREAT article with wonderful photos! My stallion has done the same thing when it comes to grazing time. If I need to change up the routine, like bathe him before grazing, I have to explain it to him. Most of the time he reluctantly agrees. Thank you for writing this up!

      • Kim Walnes

        How awesome, Terry! And I’m thrilled that you are writing and spreading the Goodness of what you are doing with Tonka and others. Humans need all the input they can get so they can better understand what it is that the animals are doing their best to teach us.
        So cool that you remember Gray and me from back in the 80’s. Those certainly were the golden days of Eventing….

  • Pam Levy

    Oh, I love this one! Sometimes we either miss the signals altogether, or make note of them without trying to fix the problem. Now, when I see that ol’ stink eye, I’ll take a page from your book and get to the bottom of it 🙂

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