Last week, I had friends visit Wednesday lunchtime. I was surprised by how mellow and friendly Marty was when we arrived – four hours earlier, when I’d done morning chores before work, he’d been extremely nervous and seemed to think that me pulling up a nightshade* was a sure sign of the apocalypse.
Sudden mood swings are not unusual in Marty. A little bit of background for those who might not know it: we’ve long associated Marty’s more feral behaviour with the weather, specifically rainy weather. He would usually go feral between November-March and any time it rained / had rained / was planning to rain throughout the rest of the year. Theories involved sensory issues that meant he didn’t like to be touched when wet, and headaches caused by changes in barometric pressure. Over the last year or so, he has seemed to cope better with wet weather and it is no longer a definite “nope – won’t be able to do anything with him today” when it rains. Last winter he was still rather annoying, but not as annoying as he used to be.
Anyway, for funsies I decided to keep a diary of his moods and corresponding variables to see if there were any interesting patterns. I know, my idea of fun is kind of weird.
I’ve kept a mood diary before many years ago, when he was being extremely difficult, but I don’t know where it is now. It was probably stored on my old computer which died and took all my photos, art, and writing with it … always make back-ups, friends.
I will put the results below and then leave my thoughts at the end of the post.
* To be fair, he may have a point. We left the hill field a few months ago, grazed down the front paddocks, and have now returned to the hill field to graze down the late summer growth. There are black nightshades everywhere. EVERYWHERE. We’ve never had anything like this before and the only thing I can think of is that the visiting geese spent much more time than usual in our field this year – I’m wondering if they’ve somehow spread the seeds. Either that or we’re under a witch’s curse.
The Marty Key
This is obviously very basic – just three ‘settings’ to describe Marty’s overall mood.
- Anxious: this is used to describe Marty when he’s actively avoiding contact, is snorting / staring at me, easily spooked, won’t allow me to touch his head
- Indifferent: isn’t avoiding contact, but isn’t seeking it either – I can rub his forehead. Not particularly interested in my presence
- Friendly: seeks me out, eager to be involved, very cuddly, wants attention, will allow me to hug him and put my head against his for long periods of time
I didn’t have much time, so instead of greeting the mules at the gate I cut across the top of the field in order to move the fence at the other end of the track. The herd met me there, Marty very indifferent to me while I sorted fencing. However, when I bent down near him to pull up a nightshade, he became very anxious – rigid, head raised, balance rocked backwards, blowing and snorting. Eventually unstuck his feet and ran away to graze elsewhere.
Time: 12:30 – 14:00 – Sari and Ben (+ friends!)
Weather: light rain
Marty very chilled and friendly. Came through gate when asked, even when I had to use energy to block Iris from squeezing through ahead of him. Easy to catch (by Marty standards). Came in, met new people (indifferent – but food was on offer), went for a walk, played on the obstacle course, came home. Allowed my friend (a total stranger to him) to HUG AND KISS HIS HEAD (!!!) for an extended period of time before I took his halter off. Kept head lowered throughout halter removal.
Time: 18:00 – 19:00 – Sari and Ben
Temperature: About 11c
Chilled, friendly, peaceful. Happy to engage.
Met mules at gate. Marty watchful but happy enough to engage, allowed head rub etc. – would say indifferent bordering on anxious. I cut across the top again and did the same routine as yesterday. Mindful of yesterday’s reaction, when I spotted another nightshade I made a particular effort to be smooth and unthreatening in my movements – I’m pretty sure I didn’t grab at it yesterday, but it’s surprising how often you think you’re moving in one way and are actually moving in another. I asked Cash Pony to step over as it was near his foot; Marty was grazing with him and he looked when I moved Cash, but didn’t react and went back to eating. When I bent down to pull out the nightshade his head went up, ears pricked, nostrils flared, but there was no snorting this time and he was able to smoothly turn away and leave rather than getting rigid and stuck.
Time: 18:00 – 19:30 – Sari and Ben
Temperature: About 15c
Weather: Sunny, breezy
He was a little indifferent; not eager to interact, but not anxious either. I decided to test a theory by bending down as though I was about to pluck something out of the ground. It got his attention and he looked at me, but there was no real worry in him. When I moved the fence later he seemed more nervous once he was grazing – an effect I’ve noticed before – but when I plucked another nightshade he just looked at me for a moment before continuing to eat, albeit with one ear on me at all times.
Chilled, friendly, easy to work with. Did get anxious again once I’d moved the fence and I approached him while he was grazing.
Time: 16:00 – 18:00 – Ben only
Marty friendly and mellow.
Mellow and friendly, but got over-excited when Iris escaped from the field – nobody else cared.
Time: 13:00 – 13:30 – Sari and Ben
Friendly and mellow. Eager to suggest tricks and interaction. Didn’t seem worried when I moved the fence a little to give them extra grass.
Time: 17:30 – 18:00 – Ben only
Another one that I forgot to record – I don’t remember him being nervous, so I’m going to say indifferent / friendly.
Time: 17:30 – 18:00 – Ben only
Indifferent / anxious. Sought me out and wanted to hang with me, but didn’t want to be touched / mouth very rigid and small when he did ‘allow’ me to touch him. Worked for a few minutes until I was able to rub his forehead. Plot twist: much more friendly after I’d moved the fence and he was grazing! He was up the top of the field as I’d temporarily opened up the cattle track and he came running down with Iris, so wasn’t actually present during the fence move.
Time: 18:00 – 19:00 – Sari and Ben
Temperature: About 11c
Weather: Cloudy but dry
I’ve done another bad job of remembering / writing down information – by this point I was on my 10th day of work in a row and was too tired to care about most things. As before, I’m pretty sure I’d remember anxious Marty, so I’m going to go with indifferent / friendly. Ben moved the fence so I didn’t see whether Marty’s behaviour around me changed.
Temperature: About 12c
Nightshade-plucking was a red herring
Initially, I thought that there was something about me pulling up the plant that bothered him – maybe he didn’t like me ‘changing shape’ (bending over), or maybe I was diving on the damn things too suddenly. However, I’m now of the opinion that what I was seeing from him was an already full cup of worry which then overflowed as soon as I did something unexpected. He’s worried by me being near him when he’s grazing, not specifically worried by me doing gardening. Why is he worried by me being nearby or interacting with him when he’s grazing? Good question! He’s not bothered when he’s eating a haynet, or if he’s grazing on the pre-nibbled grass in the rest of the field, but he is nervous if I acknowledge him while he’s eating his hard feed or when they’ve just been let onto an ungrazed section of field.
For me, this is the biggest question to come out of the mood diary week. I was already aware that he was nervous in these situations of course, but I guess I hadn’t really thought about it properly before.
Friendlier with Ben – or is he?
Marty has long considered Ben to be his enemy, but in the last few months he seems to have finally let go of this belief and thinks that Ben might actually not be the devil after all. Ben did the herd by himself a lot this week – something I am really grateful for – because I was so tired from work. As you can see from the diary, on almost every solo visit by Ben, Marty was in the ‘friendly’ category. In comparison, all of my solo visits either elicited the ‘indifferent’ or ‘anxious’ response.
Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that Marty finds Ben’s company easier than mine (she says, to soothe her battered ego). As Ben pointed out, he doesn’t really interact with Marty when he does the field chores; I spend more time with him, and may ask more things of him. Also, all my solo visits were first thing in the morning on my way to work with a chronically sore back – my own mood may have had an impact here.
Two people are better than one
On all but two of the occasions when both Ben and I were present, Marty was friendly. Is that literally because there’s two of us? Or because we only went up together in the afternoons, when he usually seems happier? Or because two of us around means Ben does the poo-picking and I’m less pressured to get things done? Or all of the above?
The head as a guide
Something I’ve only just realised I’m doing is judging Marty’s mood by how willing he is to let me touch his head. You’ll have noticed it in the key. Anxious Marty doesn’t want his head touched at all – or any part of him, really. Indifferent Marty will tolerate a forehead rub but I have to be steady and polite about asking. Friendly Marty will let me hug his head like Robyn is doing in the first picture. Hmm. If there is something behind this headache theory – perhaps it is being illustrated here?