Invisible Voices

a voice for the voiceless

Interspecies communication – horses and cows

sleepy horse

We all communicate more than we realize through our body language. Sometimes it is not what we intended; smiling is seen by many other species as a sign of aggression. I imagine it is sometimes a sign of aggression among humans as well, just not one we admit to. Communication can be much more subtle than this. Anyone who has lived with a cat knows well what a sharply flicking tail means, especially when paired with flattened ears. We know what a wagging tail or a tucked tail means in dogs. Most of us are around these two species enough that we’ve learned bits of their communication.

What about other species? There is much to be learned. And much can be learned by watching other species interact with each other.

Horses and cows, for example. Cows tend to outweigh horses by a thousand pounds and more, yet it is horses who are dominant over cows! Terry explained this to us, and the simplified version is that horses can and will bite. Cows are very wary of them, despite that it is the cows who have the horns.

Part of the Poplar Spring routine is that the horses are kept in their barn as we begin to clean and get their fresh water. I should also mention that the routine I follow is only half of the routine. Dave (and sometimes others) have their own complimentary routine, and part of that is feeding the cows as we are in the barn with the horses.

This goes back to the domination issue. The horses will prevent the cows from eating their own food, and horses need different food than cows, so this would not be a good thing. Hence keeping the horses with us inside the barn until the cows have eaten. To add a twist, the cows love the hay that the horses get, so once they’ve eaten their grain, they start lining up outside the horse barn, and mooing quite loudly to let us know, in case we’ve forgotten, that it is time to let the horses out and let them in.

Last weekend there was a twist to the routine. It was bitterly cold, with a biting wind, and the horses – eager as always to have the barn doors open – were content to stand in and near the barn doorway, basking in the sun, half asleep. The cows watched and waited. They weren’t allowed in yet. Not even when the horses had their backs to the cows, seemingly ignoring them. The cows could have gone around the horses, since the doorway wasn’t completely blocked, but they didn’t. Terry pointed out the horses ears, which were back just slightly.

That, apparently, is horse for “don’t even try it.” And the cows didn’t.

horse and cow


4 responses to “Interspecies communication – horses and cows

  1. Kate February 16, 2007 at 11:39 am

    The words Terry put into Dede the horse’s mouth were “Anyone who tries to pass will be bit in the butt!” šŸ™‚

    Awesome pic!

    The bit about smiling as a sign of aggression reminded me of two sequential books by the Doris Lessig, entitled [i]The Fifth Child[/i] and [i]Ben, In the World[/i] respectively. The books rest on the (fictive) premise that the genetic whirlpool could result in the birth of a Neanderthal to a modern woman, and follow the tragic life story of just such a child. It’s a insightful read for an ARA, I think. But Ben, the Neanderthal, has a habit of “smiling”–baring his teeth, really–when he’s anxious or terrified, which is almost always when he’s in the midst of civilisation. It confuses the hell out of others, and leads to a lot “what the hell are you laughing at?!”-type situations.

  2. Deb February 16, 2007 at 5:11 pm

    I’ll have to pick up those books at some point, they sound really interesting.

    Sort of reminds me of “Clan of the Cave Bear” and that series, as relates to communication and expression. It was probably most striking in Valley of Horses, though it has been years since I read them, so I could be remembering wrong!

  3. RichBeBe February 16, 2007 at 8:11 pm

    I knew this from conversations with you, but holy fuck does the picture show it. In terms of conveying animal emotions that is one of the better pictures I have ever seen. You can see the aggression in the horses stance and the fear in the cows face and stance. If anyone ever says animals don’t feel have them look at this picture.

  4. Deb February 16, 2007 at 11:05 pm

    Thanks! It was even more striking when the bigger cows had that same look, but I only had gotten a picture of this kind of interaction with Dede and Carlyle, who is a mere babe at 2 years old, and the smallest cow at Poplar Spring.

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