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Bothersome non-horsey neighbors

From: Alanna

Dear Jessica, I love your book Horse Behavior Problem Solver! Now I wish you would write a book called Bothersome Non-Horsey Neighbors Problem Solver! I live on a "farmette" (5 acres) and have neighbors on both sides of me and across the road. None of them have horses, and the ones on both sides of me are city people who moved out to the country to have peace and quiet. They told me that when I met them last year, but I am beginning to think they came out here to mind other people's business. They are not nasty people at all, but I think somebody told them that everybody is best friends with their neighbors out in the country, because they call every couple of days to tell me something my horses are doing. Some of the things they come up with are really strange and scary.

What would you do if your neighbor called and said one of your horses is dead? I panicked and called my husband at work and ran out to the field to see which horse was dead. Well all of them were just fine. I have five horses, two retired ones and two riding horses and one that's too young to ride. The young one takes naps and lies down flat, and I guess they looked out their window and thought she was dead because she was lying flat. Then before that they called to say that somebody had blindfolded the horses (fly masks, duh) and today the other neighbor called (it's always the wives because they're home all day like me and their husbands are at work) and she said that two of my horses were standing on three legs. Of course I panicked again and called Ted at work and ran out to the field to see what happened, I thought maybe they got chased by dogs or kids on ATVs but they were all JUST FINE. I had to call Ted back again and say "Don't leave work, it's okay, just the neighbors weirding out on us again."

I called her back this time and said "What leg were they holding up, do you remember?" and we talked a little bit and I think what happened was they were having those kind of standing-up naps that horses take, and you know how they always stand with one hind foot on the ground and the other one with just the toe on the ground? I think that's what they were doing. Anyway they were NOT on three legs and they were NOT lame or hurt. She said "Well isn't that interesting, I don't know much about horses, now I learned something new." She's a pleasant nice woman, but I am going to go nutso if I have to keep getting scared and running out to the field to check on horses that are just fine.

What can I do about these neighbors? Like I said they are both nice women but you'd think after a few times of calling me about these "problems" they would just find something else to do. I don't want to make them angry or upset, but I want them to stop calling me. They don't know enough about horses to know when to call, so there's no reason for them to call me and scare me. I want to get along with my neighbors but I am getting tired of this routine and Ted isn't happy about it because he hates to be called at work. What can I do to get my neighbor ladies to stop this behavior? I really do wish you would write that book, I think your "people" advice is every bit as good as your wonderful horse advice!


Hi Alanna! Thanks for the kind words, and I'm glad to know that you're enjoying THE HORSE BEHAVIOR PROBLEM SOLVER. Alas, I have to tell you that the next book in that series will be about RIDING problems, not neighbour problems!

However, I don't think you really have neighbour problems. I realize that you're frustrated but I think that your situation is basically a good one, and that there are several things you can do to make it even better. First, as you so rightly say, it's important for all of you to get along. You don't have to be "best friends" with your neighbours just because your land is adjacent to theirs, but it's always a good idea to be on friendly terms, just on principle.

If you have horses, there are some very practical reasons to stay on good terms with your neighbours. Consider this: Since your neighbours are paying attention to your horses and you - instead of letting their attention annoy you, turn it to your advantage. (After all, they aren't ringing up to say "Is there some way you can have your horses eliminate in another part of your property so that we don't have to see them, erm, evacuating their bowels?" or "There's a fly over here, and I'm SURE that it came from YOUR manure pile, what do you intend to DO about this?" Some people's neighbours DO ring up about such things, and some even make concerted efforts to force horse-owners to get rid of their horses...

YOUR neighbours are friendly, curious, and concerned, and don't mind LEARNING things. I'd say you're actually lucky. So far, your horses have been fine, but eventually you may have a problem. Horses can get out and get hurt, or become frightened and get hurt within their own pasture, or get caught in a fence or in something that someone threw over the fence - or (always a concern) they can colic. If anything is ever really wrong, you'll be grateful if your neighbours ring up and say "I just thought you should know that your horse has been standing in the same place all day, maybe he's caught on something", or "Your horse has been rolling for the last half hour, isn't that sort of a long time for him to be doing that?", or, heaven forbid, "I don't see your horses, and there seems to be a horse walking down the road with nobody on him." Or - perish the thought - "There's someone with a trailer down at the other side of your field, loading up your horses... is he supposed to be doing that? I didn't even know you had put a gate down there!"

Believe me, if your horses were being stolen, you would want to know. Horse theft is big business everywhere, and it seems to me that you have, free and with no charges for installation, one of the best defenses against theft (not just horse theft but home break-ins!): friendly, interested neighbours who watch everything that goes on.

Neighbours who watch everything can also be helpful to you personally. What if, during the day when your husband is at work, you are riding in your field, your horse spooks, and you have a bad fall? You would be extremely grateful for a curious, inquisitive neighbour who came over to investigate and stayed to telephone your husband and the emergency services.

The problem right now isn't that your neighbours are ringing up to tell you things, the problem is that they don't know what situations might actually justify a call, or what information would actually be useful to you.

If I were in your situation, here's what I would do:

I would encourage the neighbours' interest, and I would try to help that interest become an educated one. I would probably invite them to tea one afternoon, and tell them how much I appreciate knowing that they're keeping an eye on my place. Then I would take them on a tour of the property, give them a sort of "meet the horses" introduction, and share some information (but only as much as I thought they could absorb in one go) about horses and horse management and horse behaviour. I would try to limit my discussion to the essential bits of information that they might NEED to know - and topics that they had rung up about before. I would keep the tone light, and not frighten them off with in-depth discussions involving unfamiliar concepts and vocabulary, or give them the impression that there would be an exam.

I would explain things in terms that anyone can understand - "Flymasks are to keep flies out of the horses' eyes, and horses CAN see through flymasks, it's just like you or me looking through a window screen..." Beware the core dump! We horse-people sometimes forget that not everyone knows, or wants to know, every single detail about horses in general and our own beloved horses in particular - even though WE naturally find each detail utterly fascinating. Remember, these are your neighbours - they aren't going anywhere, and as long as they are interested, you'll be able to invite them again for more tea (and more information).

Then I would thank them again for watching over my property and horses, and for letting me know what the horses were up to, and THEN I would ask if I could take advantage of their kindness by giving them a (previously-prepared and printed in multiple copies) list of things to watch for, and things I would most definitely appreciate being contacted about. (If this sounds familiar, it should - anyone who trains horses should know about positive reinforcement as a tool for shaping behaviours!)

Your list can be as short and concise or as long and detailed as you like - and as you think your neighbours will actually want to read - but here, just to get you started, are two examples of excellent reasons to ring you or your husband:

Anyone NOT you, and/or with a truck and trailer NOT yours, loading the horses... especially if you and your husband aren't there. (Neighbours are generally quite good at learning which motor vehicles belong to whom.) If what they're seeing is a guest arriving for the weekend, planning to keep her horses there and ride with you, you'll be able to reassure them - but if it isn't, you'll appreciate knowing about a potential theft in progress!

You riding your horse and then disappearing somewhere whilst the horse continues to wander around the pasture, tacked up. That's a legitimate cause for a phonecall or two.

This isn't going to be fool-proof - there will be times when you'll get a telephone call for a reason that seems sensible to the neighbour and silly to you. Be polite and kind, and keep in mind the many advantages of having your neighbours watching out for you, your horses, and your farm.

Also keep in mind that some situations are tricky, especially to people who aren't horsey. If someone rings up and says "Your horse is lying down!" or "Your horse is rolling!" what do you do? You certainly don't want to discourage your neighbours from taking an interest. ASK MORE QUESTIONS.

Try to show your neighbours how horses behave when everything is normal - one lying down for a nap, one "on guard" - and you can explain that naps are typically not all that long, and that a horse that is lying down for a long time may be ill or injured. Rolling - again, you can show them what a horse looks like when he's having a happy roll in the grass, and how awkward he looks when he gets up and begins to graze again, and you can explain that "good" rolling doesn't last very long either - just seconds, really - and that a horse that rolls, and rolls, and lies there for a time, and then rolls, and rolls... may be a horse with colic, which is serious and often fatal, and that you would definitely want to be called about that. Tell them - show them if you can - how horses will sometimes run for the fun of it, and explain that if your horses run around their field once or twice when they're first turned out, and then stop to graze, there's nothing to worry about, but if your horses have been out all day and are racing around at top speed with assistance/provocation from someone's loose dog, or someone's loose child on an ATV, or someone's loose child with a pop-gun, THIS is something to be worried about, and something that you should know about immediately.

There will still be mistakes and misunderstandings, because your neighbours are not horse people. They probably won't ring you every time it's called for, and they will undoubtedly continue to ring you occasionally when there's no real reason for anyone to be worried. Keep your perspective, and just be glad that you have friendly neighbours who CARE.

Even "horse people" can make mistakes about these things. I well remember the days when I boarded my horses away from home. One of my mares had the endearing habit of lying down for a lunchtime nap every day - and SNORING. Since the barn was not particularly well-run, and the staff turnover was constant, my telephone would ring quite often, as each new employee in turn would notice the "sick horse" at noon and ring up in a panic. I would invariably ask them to describe exactly what they were seeing and hearing - just in case something actually might BE wrong. Then I would tell them "Thank you very much for being so observant and for being kind enough to call me, I truly appreciate it" and go on to explain that the behaviour they'd described was NORMALLY exhibited by this particular mare every day of the week, between (approximately) noon and noon-thirty, and that it was not cause for concern... but that she were rolling constantly, or if she were to exhibit the same lying-down-with-sound-effects behaviour at any other time of the day or night, that I would greatly appreciate being notified immediately.

The botttom line is that it's GOOD to have involved neighbors. All horses can become injured or ill, or can get out of their fields and become lost, and horses can be harmed or stolen by people who come to your farm when you are not at home... Total seclusion and privacy work nicely when you have internal security, monitoring systems, and staff, but for most of us, neighbours can be an excellent alarm system, even if they sometimes ring at the wrong times. ;-)

You'll have an easier time of it if you can teach yourself not to panic when the telephone rings. As part of this effort, have a word with your neighbours (perhaps during that tea and tour) and, in a friendly and nice way, try to explain to them that you are deeply attached to your horses, and that telephone calls that begin "Something is wrong with your horse!" are the equivalent of calls that begin "Something's wrong with your baby!" or "Oh, no, what happened to your husband?" Perhaps they could lead into the subject by saying "Good morning Alanna, how are you, I've been watching your horses and I have a question" - or some such.

Even if you can't retrain your neighbours - some people are very excitable on the telephone - I think that on the whole, it's better to receive those calls even if most of them are made in error. You may want to prepare - for yourself, this time - a list of follow-up questions to ask before you allow yourself to panic. "Something's wrong with your baby!" might mean that your toddler is covered with mud from rolling in the dust, horse-style, after playing under the sprinkler - or it might mean that he's actually been injured. "Oh, no, what happened to your husband?" might be your neighbour's way of expressing sympathy for his really bad haircut - or it might mean that he just fell of the tractor from heatstroke. You can always ask questions to get a clearer picture of what the caller actually saw. I think you have to regard your neighbours' telephone calls in the same way that your veterinarian regards YOUR telephone calls - at the very least, they demonstrate interest and concern, and it's better to get ten calls, nine of which are false alarms, than to NOT get the ONE call that might actually be important.


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