Pleasantly surprised at Chaco’s reduction in cribbing after starting his exercise program, I made it part of my own routine. One sunny afternoon after I had just finished working with him, he was completely relaxed hanging out with me at the fence line of the round corral. A young girl saw us and asked me if she could give Chaco a treat. Sure, why not. The girl held her hand out to Chaco with a piece of carrot and broccoli in it. No sooner had the carrot touched his lips (he hadn’t even swallowed yet) that it was rolling back out of his mouth as he purchased his teeth on the fence rail and began to crib.
I was stunned. We had just had a nice time exercising. He was relaxed. He had no need to crib. Then the touch of a carrot triggered that need.
Clue #3: Carrots (and I later found out apples) cause Chaco to crib.
The year and a half before Chaco retired from therapy work with at-risk youth, he cribbed constantly. There was never a moment when I saw him and he wasn’t cribbing. He seemed to be in his own world. There was talk of retiring him. Eager to help him, I suggested an exercise program for him might help. I offered to do it, so several times a week I came early to pull him out of his paddock, let him roll in the corral and then do some ground work, followed by riding.
About two weeks into this new routine, I arrived one day and saw him in his paddock not cribbing. I was shocked. I didn’t recall ever seeing him not cribbing. The only thing that had changed in his routine was the addition of an exercise program.
Clue #2: Exercise reduced the amount of cribbing Chaco did.
What would become my work of rehabbing senior horses began by accident with a bay gelding in his twenties who cribbed constantly at the farm where I worked. I first met him when he arrived there at 18 years old to do therapy work with at-risk youth. He came as a cribber, and his name was Chaco. The farm tried putting tobasco sauce on the railing on which he cribbed. They tried putting a cribbing strap around his neck. None of it slowed him down or stopped him from cribbing. Over the eight years he worked as a therapy horse, his cribbing gradually increased until he was cribbing every moment of every day.
The year before his retirement I worked as the barn manager at the farm. Everyone wanted to try and figure out a way to get him to stop cribbing. I agreed, but another question was forming in my mind: “What drives him to crib?” If we could answer that question, then we could resolve his need to crib.
Because he usually spent more time cribbing than eating, he had trouble maintaining his weight. Therefore, he was fed senior horse grain daily along with hay. As the barn manager, I fed the farm animals several times a week and began to notice that he started cribbing after eating for about 10 minutes.
So one day I did an experiment. I led him out into the large fenced yard, put his grain bucket in the middle of it, and let him eat. Sure enough, after about 10 minutes he left his grain bucket and walked 15 feet away to find a place to crib at a hitching rail.
Another person at the farm that morning saw what I saw. We were both putting two and two together.
She asked, “Did he just leave his grain bucket to go crib?”
“Yes,” I replied.
This marked the beginning of a several year journey of unwinding the mystery of why he cribbed, but one thing was for sure: within 10 minutes of eating grain he had a need to crib that was stronger than his need to eat.
My first year of horse ownership was a straight-up learning curve about how to care for horses. However, it was not just any horse, but this bay gelding named Chaco. He came to me at 26 years-old, in chronic pain and cribbing constantly. He had difficulty maintaining weight, and his top line had some protruding vertebrae in his lumbar area. I turned him out 24/7 on acreage with another horse and a shelter. I fed him the highest quality hay I could find and took him off grain. In the back of my mind was chiropractic.
Chiropractic has been part of my life since I was young, so it wasn’t a big stretch for me to consider chiropractic to help Chaco feel good again. The first equine chiropractor that adjusted him used just their hands. Chaco was still in too much pain, and he tried to bite her. As much as I believed in chiropractic I couldn’t put him through the pain. So I temporarily put chiropractic on the shelf.
A year or more went by when Chaco slipped and fell. I noticed that his right hind was not tracking straight with his right front leg. I knew a chiropractor could fix it. I found a chiropractor who adjusted people and animals, using an activator. The advantage to an activator is that it is so quick when adjusting that it is ahead of the person’s or animal’s pain response. I thought this just might work for Chaco.
Within two adjustments Chaco’s right hind was tracking straight again with his right front leg. There was also a new relaxation and roundness in his hip muscles that had never been there before. Even the raised vertebrae in his low back that disrupted his top line were visibly more relaxed. In addition, he never tried to bite this chiropractor. Instead he closed his eyes, relaxed, and licked and chewed. I knew I had found the chiropractor for Chaco.
With Chaco’s warm response to the chiropractor, and the positive changes in his back and right hind leg, the chiropractor has become a regular part of Chaco’s care team.
Consider chiropractic for your horse. Not only can it can help with acute situations where there has been a trauma to the body, but it also keeps the nervous system functioning properly, which in turn supports overall health.
To see a video of a chiropractor adjusting a horse using an activator, click here.
Years ago I had heard of Rescue Remedy and the Bach Flower Essences. I had never had a reason to use them or investigate them further, until I had horses. A holistic vet told me that flower essences can be useful with emotional issues in animals. At the time they were completely outside my experience, and a little too “woo-woo” for me. Emotional issues and animals? Well, okay, but I kept the idea on my back burner for future reference. When it came to the well-being of my horses I would consider it when the time arose.
When my horse’s pasture mate died of colic, that time came up. My horse’s demeanor was visibly different for days. He just stood in the corner of the field away from the other horses with a low head and sad look in his eyes. He looked depressed, and there really wasn’t anything I could do to fix the situation and bring his horse friend back. Then I remembered, “Flower essences!” Maybe they could help.
I pulled out my animal wellness collection of 23 different blends of flower essences. (Yes, they were a little woo-woo, but if my horse indicated he wanted them then who was I to argue)? I chose a couple of different blends like “grief and loss” and “transitions”. I put them in my pocket, and then went out to see my horse.
Without me looking at the labels, I let him sniff each one. On some he turned his head away. I took that as a “no”. On others he tried to nip them out of my hands. “Okay,” I thought, “I guess you want those.” I placed a single drop on my fingertips and touched the tips of his ears with it. Then he did something he’s never done before, or since: He licked it off my fingertips.
Twice that week he wanted the flower essences I offered. Then on the third day, he no longer wanted them.
While I don’t fully understand flower essences, I do trust my horse’s instincts, and I’m more than happy to let him tell me what he wants. The bonus for me is that I get a little glimpse into his world of being a horse, and I come to understand him that much more.
A few years before I owned my first horse, I came to know him at a therapeutic riding facility. Over several years his pain level seemed to be increasing. A colleague and I decided to see if we could find a properly fitting saddle for him, and perhaps that would resolve his pain issues. I remember gently touching his back on both sides of his spine, looking for where he would pin his ears. That is where he hurt. His shoulders were uneven and western saddles tended to pinch them. He made it clear he did not like being touched on his shoulders. If I touched his shoulders, he pinned his ears. By the end of the afternoon we found an English saddle that seemed to steer clear of his shoulder pain.
Every time I exercised him I first checked his back for pain. I watched his eyes and ears for communication from him as I slowly ran my fingers along his back. As I did this routine more and more, I began to see another pattern developing. There were places I touched where he would relax and close his eyes. Fascinated by this response I was soon looking for the places where he wanted to be touched, rather than the places that caused him pain.
After a few months of this new discovery, I started experimenting with my own thoughts as I touched him. One afternoon I put my hands on him, and in my head I expressed my appreciation of him. As I consciously said in my head how much I appreciated him, he relaxed and closed his eyes right in time with my thought. I knew horses could read people inside and out, but this was the first time I experienced a purposeful thought in my head and his corresponding response, all in silence. Fascinated again, I spent many afternoons just experimenting with positive thoughts in my head and observing his response.
Several years later, I came upon a type of body work for horses that is similar to massage called the Masterson Method, where the horse directs the human on where and how to touch. I realized I had learned many of the basic Masterson Method techniques by accident from my horse. Not only does this type of body work help the horse physically, it also increases the bond between horse and human.
In the photo above, notice that his ears are slightly back, which means I don’t have quite the right touch or place he wants my hands. I can try many things in my own body to change this: breathe, change the thoughts in my head, decrease the level of touch, or move a few millimeters to a new location. His ears will tell me when I get it right. Try it with your own horse. The horse will let you know when you’ve found the spot.
The second senior horse I took in was a 27 year-old palomino gelding named Thunder. He had chronic diarrhea for years. While with the previous owner, the vet could not find a cause. They started him on a probiotic, which seemed to help. They even tried worming him with Moxidectin, which is the most potent of all wormers. (You do not want to get the dosage wrong, and it is not typically recommended for senior horses). They thought that perhaps the cause of the diarrhea was a worm that only Moxidectin could kill.
The year or two before I took him, I heard that he was having problems with diarrhea. I did some research and learned that if you have a senior horse with diarrhea the first thing to eliminate as a cause is the teeth. An equine dentist, who has extensive training beyond vet school can give a complete evaluation of the mouth and teeth. An equine dentist will catch things a general equine vet may not.
When I took Thunder into my care the first thing I did was take him to the dentist. The dentist said his teeth were completely worn out and could no longer chew hay. The molars in horses should be completely flat and when the top arcade of molars meets the bottom arcade it grinds hay. Thunder’s teeth were “cupped out”, meaning there was no longer a flat surface, but rather a cupped surface. When he went to grind hay he couldn’t. The dentist said that if large pieces of inadequately chewed hay were to get all the way to the colon, they could irritate it and cause diarrhea. It looked like that was what was happening with Thunder.
I immediately took Thunder off hay and fed him soaked hay pellets. Within a week his manure normalized, and there was no sign of diarrhea. I even weaned him off the probiotic, and the diarrhea hasn’t been back. It’s been 2 1⁄2 years.
I asked the dentist if the present condition of Thunder’s teeth was preventable.
“Yes,” he answered.
“When would have been the last chance to start seeing him before we would end up with worn out teeth?”
“Ten years ago.”
Why does this all matter? It’s cheaper to feed high quality hay than it is to feed hay pellets. It’s more convenient to feed hay than it is to soak hay pellets a few times a day. While I don’t regret a single moment figuring out what Thunder needed and then providing it, if different decisions were made 10 years ago, and the information was in the hands of the horse owner, then Thunder could have been spared the years of chronic diarrhea and the resulting toll it took on his body.
If you have a horse, consider seeing an equine dentist as part of your horse’s care team. Don’t wait until they are old and having serious issues. Prevention is key. The health and longevity of your horse depends on it. And the best part of all, you will have more years to enjoy your horse.