Here are two universal truths about horses: 1) horses locked in a pen want out, and 2) horses are born with a sixth sense about open gates.
The only active thought, aside from "where's my food," that horses locked in a pen will obsess over is: "How do I get outta this joint."
Horses definitely have a thing for gates and the possibilities of what lies beyond them: another pasture, the open road, a barn full of food, a bare area of dirt, a swamp, some kind of deadly trap or other menace to their health, or a small pen (from which they will immediately plan an escape). They simply have a primal instinct to pursue any possible opportunity an open gate offers.
Handily enough for them, horses can sense an open gate from a mile away, while in a deep slumber, dreaming of a bag of oats. The moment you open a gate and even ponder the idea of leaving it unattended, a silent alarm is triggered in the horses' neurons. They will awaken, converge on the gate and forge through like a well-honed assault force.
Homeland Security should be envious of the sensitivity and accuracy of the standard equine open gate sensor.
All this said, Monday after taking a lame horse to spend the night at the vet's office, I was not surprised to see that my two remaining horses rushed from their pasture and through the gates, I had left open, to check out the corral and attached pen. It was only natural.
Later that evening, when I tossed their hay out in their usual twice-daily feeding area outside the corral, I wasn't worried about the fact that the horses were still inside the corral. The gates were wide open and, by natural impulse, the pair would utilize this opportunity to escape the enclosures through the open gates to get to their beloved food. They are horses and will do as horses do. There being those two universal truths and all.
Imagine my surprise, shock, embarrassment, bewilderment, dismay, speechlessness ... the next morning when I went out for morning chores and shined the flashlight around looking for the horses only to discover the entire previous evening's hay untouched and two pairs of horse eyes staring from inside the corral.
The horses nickered, obviously hungry, distraught.
I was mortified. Maybe I had been wrong about the gates being open, or something bizarre had occurred to close a gate and trap the horses away from their feed. It couldn't possibly be that my horses were somehow unable to figure out how to get to their food. That would just be too stupid for words. They are horses. There was food involved. They had all night to figure this out. They have instincts, universal truths to uphold, right?
I walked around the outside of the corral while the horses took the straight route across the middle of it, all of us heading to the gates. Just as my light struck the open gateways, the horses walked out of the corral, hung a left and strode out of the pen too, without guidance, without gate impedance, not missing a beat, but like they were relieved that my presence had suddenly made the gateways "reappear." They walked past me to their hay while I stood there — stupefied, gape-mouthed — trying to figure out what had happened.
Sadly, after a full investigation of the scene and all the evidence, my only conclusion is that, yes, my two horses stayed in the corral all night — pacing its full interior and stopping to stare at the hay they "couldn't reach" — because they were too not-bright-enough to think of walking through the open gates to get out.
Wide open gates.
To the pasture where they normally live.
Not once in 12 hours.
No one who has heard me tell this tale thus far quite understands my extreme reaction to this event. Maybe it will help to know this, my fear:
What if another universal truth about horses is: Like athletes only being as good as their competition, horses are only as clever as their owners.
(For sale: two horses, pretty as sunrise, but stupid enough to make me look bad at http://viewnorth40.wordpress.com.)