Do Horses Experience Beauty?

free range horse photography of an eight day old colt on a scenic hilltop
An eight-day-old colt passes too close for his own comfort on a hilltop.
free range horse photography of a mare and new foal on a scenic hilltop
Early fog was just lifting as we all find ourselves on the same hilltop.

This colt is on high alert when I am nearby, as is his mother, but he pauses in this moment to get a good look at me. It has been an uncommon occurrence to to be on this hilltop while the herd is browsing there. Obviously, the view is amazing, but the opportunities for a shot are few for several reasons. On this morning, I had marched over hill and dale to photograph a different foal but these two unexpectedly arrived from a different direction. Neither of them were thrilled to see me there, and they moved on to more private grazing.

I wonder if horses are capable of appreciating a scenic view? I know they appreciate having the extended visibility from hilltops and they seem to like standing with the breeze in their face lifting their forelocks, but I don’t know if they experience beauty.

Belly Games

free range horse photography of a first-time mother and newborn foal
A first-time mother surprises me with her baby on a rainy spring morning.

In her first hours of life this filly seemed to delight in wobbling around and under her mother repeatedly. This was not the usual foal action of instinctually searching underneath for nursing purposes, this was in addition to that. Head ducked, knees bent and nose pushing forward, the filly explored the belly-canopy of her mom as if it was an obstacle course feature. Maybe the repeated motion was soothing, like a cat being stroked along it’s entire back. Born on a morning of nearly consistent drizzle didn’t dampen her spirit. Even though this was her first foal, this mare was a calm and gentle mother; the filly stouthearted and undaunted even though neither of them knew what they were doing.

Growing Into a Name

I can imagine these images may be rather pedestrian to some viewers, but these little moments of horse life interest me. The simple act of walking through a gentle water shed stream, or what was likely the first time (or nearly the first time) for this young foal to leap valiantly over-obediently following his mother-feel like a privilege to observe. The horses get used to me hanging around, and because I don’t attempt to alter their movements or motivation, I get to join in on their adventures.

This colt quickly earned the name of Rasputin when I observed his aggressive and cranky behavior towards the other foals from his first days. He looked like a teddy bear but his aloof, single-minded solidarity to his mother and his demanding ways made him seem a bit wicked. He has since been quite unremarkable in any of his interactions when I am near, so I feel confident in knowing he was unfairly judged by me and has redeemed himself. Someday he will have a new name that defines any first impressions to all that would hear it in a more positive way.

free range horse photography of a mare making a stream crossing with zen-like style
Spring rains have given us a seasonal water flow; the horses seem to like the serene flow.

 

free range horse photography of a young colt leaping a stream
A brave effort by this young colt gets him across the seasonal stream with style.

Attempted Maternal Coup

Early on a March morning I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time. Two mares had given birth a couple hours previous to my arrival. I love observing newborn foals and their million discoveries about life on the outside. During my quiet jubilation at my good luck, a third mare laid down and gave birth to a notably large colt without moving away from the herd for solitude, which is unusual. A perfect morning, cool and sunny and a little breezy allowed for a serene birth and initial 20 minutes of terrestrial time.

The first image shows the colt’s first successful standing moment. Because of his numerous attempts to rise and sort his long legs out to stand, some curious herd mates approached to investigate. The other mare in the sequence is a sweet mare who has been a doting mother in the past. This year, however, she would not be having a foal of her own. She becomes instantly taken by the vulnerable newborn and won’t accept the fact he is another’s baby. Grievously, the orientation of the wobbly foal was directly in between the ensuing aggressive assertions. He was tossed about and when the mares squared off and spun to kick each other with deadly hind hooves I had to intervene. Risking the safety and kidnapping of the newborn was not necessary since I could interrupt the situation. Motherhood instincts are strong and especially so in nature. I have discovered this type of stealing behavior is not rare in natural situations. In the wild, and/or when unmanaged, the outcome for the foal is fatal. Because these horses live in a free range, natural environment they have heightened senses of survival and their innate abilities are strong, but sometimes behaviors can still go wrong.

free range horse photography of the first hour of a foal's life learning to stand
The first upright moments in a newborn foal’s journey.

 

free range horse photography of the first hour of a foal life
Another mare shows too much interest in the wobbly newborn foal.

 

free range horse photography of the first hour of a foal life
Intense bonding hormones are suddenly going haywire for each horse; the newly born is running on strong instincts to find it’s first milk.

 

free range horse photography of the first hour of a foal life
The intruding mare moves past mere motherly curiosity and makes a threat for possession of the new foal.

 

free range horse photography of the first hour of a foal life
The newborn is intent on connecting with a milk source and the rightful mother falters in asserting her motherhood over the larger, more forceful mare.

 

free range horse photography of the first hour of a foal life
The situation intensifies over possession of the new foal who is still only moments on his own unsteady four legs.

 

free range horse photography of the first hour of a newborn foal's life
In the heat of the moment battle stances are being implemented and the wobbly foal is tossed about.

 

free range horse photography of the first hour of a foal life
The foal regains his balance and a clear winner is unfolding.

 

free range horse photography of the first hour of a foal life
After a rare intervention by the observing photographer the mare regains possession of her foal and necessary bonding continues.

 

free range horse photography of the first hour of a foal life
Once peace is restored the mare appears grateful in this brief moment of acknowledging my presence.

 

Four Thousand Three Hundred Twenty Little Hours

free range horse photography of a new foal staying in step with his mother
A new colt who is diligent in his attempts to keep up with his high-strung mother.

 

free range horse photography of a ready-to-wean bold colt
A lot of growth has occurred for this big boy in six months.

With a little time, grass, mother’s milk and energizing sunshine this colt has bloomed into a uniquely handsome ready-to-wean lean machine. Notice how cute and determined he was from day-one to be a successful little soldier to his restless mother.

Whiskers on Kittens

Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens, brown paper packages tied up with strings,

These are a few of my favorite things.

Cream colored ponies and crisp apple strudels, doorbells and sleigh bells and schnitzel with noodles, wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings,

These are a few of my favorite things.

… girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes, the snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes, silver white winters that melt into springs, …

Songwriters: Oscar Hammerstein/Richard Rodgers  My Favorite Things

free range horse photography of frolicking mares and foals in a summer landscape
The setting sun casts a golden hue on frolicking mares and foals.

and moments like this with That Herd.

This is one of my favorite things.

Big strong foals and mares, young and older, with spark and verve.

 

The Warning

free range horse photography of a mare's warning to stay away from her colt
This is her normal warning face. Can you imagine how ferocious she could become in the face of a life or death threat?

Being a prey animal, a horse’s natural defense response is flight. However, there are occasions when standing their ground is a choice. Mares with more dominant natures will challenge any violation of their space comfort zone, especially if they have a young foal. New foals stick close to their mothers in the first days and weeks of their life. The protective instincts of the mares is greatly heightened at this time.

In the case of this mare, this is her lowest-threat-warning-face, based on that, I would not want to confront her dire threat response. The “dead eye” is an ominous indication of intent.

Far From Ordinary

free range horse photography of a unique white ear tip on new foal
Besides the length of his face from eye to muzzle, he has a white ear tip, making him doubly unique.

Ordinary is not a label that fits this colt. He was born with an extra velvety hair coat, a distinctive long face, pale eyes, and a tiny white ear tip with long white hairs.

He is one day old in this image, that was about four months ago. His mother is mostly a loner, she takes to the company of one chosen horse for as long as possible. This year she spends her time with the palomino mare so her colt and this one spend a lot of time together. They are half brothers connected by the same sire and full brothers connected by companionship.

If Days Had Halos

Free range horse photography of a newborn foal and mother in tall green grass
The foals born in April will not be ticklish on their bellies after all the tall-grass-marching they did.

In direct contrast to today’s wildfire and extreme-heat ravaged California, this memory is connected to a glorious California morning in mid April. Mild in temperature and robed in glittering dewy refreshment, the morning was so beautiful and the native grasses so lush, I didn’t discover this new foal for some time. This spring (when removed from the pandemic devastation) was sweet. Sweet for casual observers and a sweet time to be born without fences. Cheers to this colt’s day of birth, a divine day indeed. If days could have halos, this one surely would have.

Born For Adventure

I had my work cut out for me on the morning this foal was born. Mother followed the herd on a round trip of a couple of miles, over hillsides and through the woods, all in about an hour. There were a couple of opportunities to document some great vistas with a new foal, which does not happen often. The new colt was a trooper, never faltering and never lying down. While I can’t know exactly when he was born, it had been less than 24 hours since I’d seen Mom and she still had baby on board. So, I guess he was not more than several hours old when he accomplished this hike with his herd mates.

free range horse photography of a newborn colt on a mountain top
Lord of all he sees; in this setting even a newly born foal looks like a king.

 

free range horse photography of a mare on a hilltop with her newborn colt
Majestic setting for a newly born foal’s first field trip.

 

free range horse photography of a mare communicating with her new foal
Rising mist hides the scenery behind this mare with her new foal.

 

free range horse photography of a mare and hours-old foal covering some territory
It was quite a journey for this new foal to follow his mother up and over a couple of hilltops so soon after being born.

Lying Low

The mare off by herself was an indication that she might be hiding a surprise. The tall mustard stalks made it challenging to get a peek at this new kid without getting too close. He was lying quietly in a thick patch of flowering mustard, his mother standing guard above him. Eventually, he stood up and I took a couple quick pics before the mare moved away. Somehow the colt had a puffy eye but he was none the worse for wear otherwise. He was quite a large newborn, so entering this world may have been a bit bruising for all involved. I kept my distance throughout the morning as the mare was needing lots of space to feel comfortable.

free range horse photography of an early morning arrival: a nursing colt
Early morning arrival; a new colt nurses before the sunrise.

 

free range horse photography of a very strong new colt
Not quite comfortable in his new world, his face shows determination and concern keeping up with mom in the tall mustard weed.

 

free range horse photography of a moment in the sun for a mare and new baby
Venturing out from the shade of thick trees, a moment of bright sun shows the new foal’s puffy eye and mom’s alert vigilance.

Textbook Mom Anchor

free range horse photography of a mare and new foal resting in the shade
Taking a break from the glaring morning sun after a long morning of birth and bonding.

With her usual “keep your distance” glare after giving birth, I get the stink-eye from mom. I must admit she was more generous with her distance requirement this year. Usually, she is on the move to disappear as soon as she sees me approaching after she has foaled and she tests the limits of my telephoto zoom lens.

free range horse photography of a newborn foal marching to keep up with mother
Marching to navigate the tall grasses, a newborn sticks close to mom.

With a determination visible by the set of his jaw, this little guy dutifully maintains close contact with his mother in the first hours of his life.

free range horse photography of a pale palomino newborn
Being born is hard work; at a few hours old, this colt’s expression is not a care-free one.

 

free range horse photography of a tired newborn colt
At this point he just wanted a nap. A drip of milk visible in his nose.

Many times newly born foals maintain close contact with their mothers, as if they were still connected by a cord. This colt, born May 19, was no exception. He had a very busy morning and seemed a bit flustered with all the complexities of “life on the outside”. Mom was his anchor in these trying hours.

 

Chillin’

free range horse photography of a colt using his mother as a backrest
Look who’s at ease using his mother as a backrest.

A brief recess from my ongoing parade of newborns allows me to show you this laid back little dude.

He looks quite comfortable leaning on his mother’s front legs, as if propped up on pillows. Mom doesn’t seem to mind; she stood like a statue until he popped up.

The colt is quite a brute these days, size wise. This was in early April, and the green grass was abundant.

(‘Chill’ is a North American informal adjective for easy going or very relaxed for all you international viewers).

Transient Journey

free range horse photography of a new mother and her newborn foal in a field of yellow
A new mother tends to her newborn filly.

A sea of yellow creates a magical setting for the bonding between a first-time mother and her new baby.

There is a beginning and an end to every journey. Sometimes the beginning and ending are not joyful and the journey is all too brief.

Nature forces us to accept good and tragic outcomes, and that lesson was revisited with this dear foal.

Spark of Defiance

free range horse photography of an attentive mother and her day old foal
Instinct takes over when this mare has a foal, she is determined to keep her safe so she flees each time I come near.

 

free range horse photography of a new filly
She sticks close to mother in the first days and weeks of her life.

 

free range horse photography portrait of a day old filly
She looks serene in this image; one of the first chances I’ve had to see her not running away.

I could see this mare was ready to foal but she waited until I left to give birth. She had a determined little filly who followed her wary mother’s example obediently. I watched with disappointment as they moved away when I approached for many weeks. The filly is one day old in these images. She has grown in confidence and brute strength since she was born in early May. She has a definite spark of defiance about her but she is giving none of that to her doting mother.

Badass Mother Buying Time

free range horse photography of a badass mare and her newborn foal
This mare took measures to make sure her new foal was ready to meet the many challenges living in a wild herd bring.
free range horse photography of a badass mare who guarded her new foal with fierce determination.
Late afternoon light falls on this foal as her fierce mother stands guard.

Early morning light illuminates a new addition to That Herd. This badass paint mare stacked the deck for her success by covertly stealing some time to give birth and give her foal the first important hours of strength-building before returning to the herd. Her plan to stay hidden lasted all day, and as the sun was setting in the second image she was attentive and alert for the slightest encroachment into her sphere of protection. I had no doubt the foal would be well guarded through the night. By the next morning she had rejoined the herd, on her own terms, having successfully given her new foal a head start on confidence for what was to come.

Birth Day

free range horse photography of a devoted mother and her 2020 newborn
This mare was born to be a mother; her new filly is a few hours old in this image.

Last year she had a foal that looked just like her. This year, she has a foal that looks just like the sire. She couldn’t be any more proud.

Little Jackrabbit of a Foal

free range horse photography of an older mare and her pint sized newborn foal
A steady older mare welcomes a cute little-jackrabbit-foal.

 

free range horse photography of a portrait of proud mother and tiny new foal
Portrait of a proud mother and tiny new foal.

 

free range horse photography of an older foal greeting a newborn foal
An older colt greets a newborn foal highlighting the difference four weeks can make in size.

The color of the grass gives away how behind I am in keeping up with new birth announcements. Now, in the first week of June the grasses are golden and dry. The last days of April brought a couple new foals, this wee filly was one of them. Born to a solid older mare, her small size is nature’s kindness to a veteran mother. Not to worry, the new foal has grown quickly and is as solid as any of her older siblings and definitely holds her own like a champ. The third image shows an older herd mate greeting her kindly while her skeptical mother stands guard over the colt’s manners.

Occupation: Motherhood

free range horse photography of a wobbly newborn colt
When I first laid eyes on this newborn foal my first reaction was that he would make a perfect Hollywood movie horse, he has such a great coat color and flashy white markings.

 

free range horse photography of a mare bonding with her new colt
Exchanging nickers of love.

 

free range horse photography of a beautiful mare and her flashy new colt
A beautiful mare and flashy colt make an effortless family portrait.

 

free range horse photography of a proud mare and her new colt
She is the very picture of a proud mother.

Birth is not only about making babies, but about making mothers as well. New mothers and old mothers contend with birthing risks; in older mares and mares who have had several foals, the risks are higher. Mothers sacrifice their own lives for the lives of their babies; this is a reality as old as time. This sacrifice may come in the form of protection from predators or perceived dangers, or it may come in the form of not surviving postpartum complications. Heroic sacrifice and tragic sacrifice leave admiration or heartbreak in it’s wake.

Participating in creation makes every mare the author of a story full of potential. However. the tragedy of a lost mother cannot be measured, not by the baby, the bystander, nor the new care-giver.

After keeping careful watch and waiting with much anticipation for each mare’s new offspring, I remain ever reverent to the occupation that they must take on year after year.

Stealth Grazing

free range horse photography of a mare and foal concealed in tall grass
Stealth grazing.

This is not the tallest mare of That Herd but she creates a realistic picture of how tall the grasses have become. The ear tips are the only evidence of her foal beside her.

Interestingly, the mare seems to be peering through the shield of a single stalk of mustard weed pretending she cannot be seen at all, which aptly matches her daily desire to be left alone.