TRUE TRAINING 87 - Quoth the Raven: Arena Wildlife

Dec 01, 2023 by Janet Jones

We all have our quirks, right? One of mine is the belief that arenas are for horses and riders. Period. Well, all right, ground handlers or instructors are tolerated if they don’t back into a horse’s path. But True and I live in a rural area, where we get lots of wildlife in outdoor arenas.


While working under saddle, we’ve experienced coyotes, large turtles, cottontail bunnies, prairie dogs, birds of all kinds, foxes, bobcats, jackrabbits, tarantulas, hawks, deer, ground bees, and elk. Inside the arena fence! Wildlife is great... but not patrolling the centerline, hopping around on the rail, or popping up unannounced from invisible holes inside a horse’s safe work area.


True shies at most of these animals, or at least gives them his full attention. But the animal that unnerves us the most is the gigantic Edgar Allen Poe raven that sits above the arena. Poe observes every move True and I make with a steely eye, glinting in malice from his perch on a nearby pole. Every now and then he swoops down with huge slow wings and long black feathers flopping against the breeze. Poe lands on the arena sand and saunters around, completely unconcerned with the flying change we were preparing to do or the presence or True’s 1500-pound approach. Then back up to the top of the pole Poe goes for another period of cold cruel observation. It feels a lot like being dragged under a bright light and interrogated as a potential serial killer.


True shies from most birds in the arena, especially those that appear suddenly from outside his range of vision. I teach him through calm repeated passes through the scary spot that we have to accept these surprises. One reason for a horse’s fear of birds is that they often appear from above or below… where the horse is blind unless he tips his entire head significantly downward or upward. Which, while working under saddle, most riders don’t allow the horse to do.


Horses have significant blind channels below and above the horizon. Look at a horse’s pupil sometime. See how it’s long and flat, like a rectangle? That design allows horses a very wide horizontal range of view (about 340 degrees). But it also limits vertical range of view from top to bottom. Now compare that shape to the pupil of your own eye. It’s perfectly round. You have about the same range of view whether horizontally or vertically, roughly 90 degrees each way.


This means that we riders have a much better view of objects above and below our lines of sight than our horses do. You might think your horse has noticed an upcoming bird perched on a pole, say, 15 degrees above his line of sight. Why? Because you can see it! But your horse can’t. If that bird suddenly flies into your horse's vertical range of vision, it will seem to have emerged from nowhere. That’s a pretty scary event for a prey animal whose brain is engineered to flee from any potential danger.


Poe makes True nervous from the start of a session to its finish. True doesn’t shy from the raven; he watches it. More specifically, True watches Poe watching him. And there is something about the raven’s harsh inspection that worries True. Mr. T’s head and neck remain raised and taut, his ears flit about, his pace increases, his back is tight. All of these signals tell me True is in danger of an imminent explosion. My heels drop half an inch farther.


This is the sort of silly thing that fascinates brain scientists. Why is True more nervous about a raven than a coyote or a bobcat? Well, the raven can fly. But then, why is True more nervous about a raven than a bluebird? The raven is larger, slower, it flaps more. But I suspect that a big part of the problem is that the raven is a predator. He pierces True with direct eye contact.


OK, well maybe. But bobcats and coyotes are predators, too. They capture True’s full attention but only momentarily, and their existence doesn’t cause True to remain nervous throughout the ride. Maybe this is because bobcats and coyotes don’t stand and watch us. They trot or lope through the arena on their way to some other location. Poe grows roots on his perch, holding his eye contact for a long, long time.


There’s something else about True’s response to ravens that also makes me wonder. Ravens are smart. Members of the corvid family along with crows, they are known for creative tool use, grieving their dead, extensive playtime, self-awareness, and sharing of new knowledge. They even watch other animals’ behavior in an effort to foil those who would steal the ravens’ food. Maybe there's a good reason for the group terms a "murder" of crows and an "unkindness" of ravens.


So maybe True senses all this and places Poe pretty high on his list of dangerous acquaintances. I can’t know for sure, at least not yet. But I know that True’s anxiety around ravens is much greater than it is around other forms of wildlife.