Archive for Emotions

Do Horses Have Emotional Lives?

When I got back into horses as an adult, I volunteered for several years at an equine therapy program for at-risk youth and teens in drug and alcohol recovery.  The horses did a great job helping these kids learn how to make positive, healthy choices in their lives.

The horses were so good at it that I didn’t realize they had emotional needs themselves.  Yes, they had their basic physical needs met, like shelter, food and water, and they had some emotional needs met in that they lived in a herd and were not confined to a stall.  But I had no idea they had an emotional life of just being a horse that had nothing to do with the people they were helping.

When I took in Chaco, my first senior horse retiring from therapy work, he was burned out.  How did I know he was burned out?  He had always been a hard keeper, but it started to get even more difficult for him to maintain his weight.  But even more than that, he was also a docile horse that never bit or kicked.  When he started a pattern of biting people, that is when we knew he was burned out.

Knowing that physical and emotional needs are intertwined, I began with revamping his diet to optimize his nutrition on the physical side.  To attend to his emotional needs, I put him on acreage with space to move day and night in a herd.

As he became healthy and his curiosity returned, I realized that there was much more to his emotional life.  In his state of new health, I now had something to compare to when he had an off day.  If his demeanor was different on a particular day, I could look around and consider what changed in his environment that might affect him.

When one of his pasture mates died a few years later, his demeanor was visibly different for 2 weeks.  It was then that I realized this was an emotional issue, and it was on a scale I had never witnessed before in a horse.

This experience introduced me to flower essences  While his demeanor over the first week improved with the help of flower essences, he still wasn’t quite his usual self.

I tried to think of who might be able to lift his spirits.  My sister came to mind.  The first time they had met, they instantly hit it off.

When she came and spent the day with him, his eyes brightened and his curiosity returned.  It was a positive turning point for him in processing the loss of his horse friend.

The emotional lives of horses.  If it still seems outside your experience, spend time watching them and being around them where they are free to be themselves and you are not asking anything of them.

After years of observing and comparing different experiences, I can say that I have seen JOY in Chaco.  I have seen GRIEF in Chaco.  I have seen SADNESS in Chaco.  I have seen EXCITEMENT in Chaco.  I have seen FEAR in Chaco.  I have seen PANIC in Chaco.  I have seen ASTONISHMENT in Chaco.  I have seen APPRECIATION in Chaco.  I have seen CONTENTMENT in Chaco.

Today, if someone asked me if horses have emotional lives, I would say “Yes, absolutely, and it has much more depth than we realize.”

I’m sure there is still more to Chaco’s life as a horse that I will come to understand over time.  It’s like a great mystery novel.  I can’t put this book down.  It keeps getting better with every page turn.

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Contentment

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Appreciation

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Curiosity

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Excitement

 

Body Language of Happy Horses

Here at God’s Window, we keep our horses in a herd on acreage year-round. They come and go as they please. The more natural their living environment, the healthier they are. Having space to move day and night, and the companionship of other horses is vital to them thriving.

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Living in a herd 24/7.

When I go out into the field to visit, it’s not uncommon for them to come over to me. It usually starts with Thunder. He sees me from afar and looks right at me. I head in his direction, and then walk right past him just to confirm if he really wants to be with me. I find a tree to sit under, and he inevitably comes over and puts his hips in my hands. He wants to be scratched.

After several minutes the rest of the herd begins to meander our way. Chaco, the herd leader, picks up a walk with his head low, ears forward, and soft eyes, (a submissive posture), coming straight for me. I know he wants me to put my hands on him, but my hands are already full with Thunder. If he keeps coming, Thunder will move away out of respect, so I square up my shoulders to Chaco to stop him in his tracks about 20 feet away. He defers to my request, but I know he wants me to leave Thunder and come over to him. After a few minutes of scratching Thunder, I give Thunder some final pats before heading to Chaco who has been waiting patiently.

In this scenario there’s no ear pinning, tail swishing, eye glaring, nor a high head, all of which are stress signals. Instead, eyes are soft, ears are forward, tails are quiet and heads are low. This is the body language of a horse at ease in its environment, and in this case, the environment includes a person.

How often do you see horses giving stress signals in their interaction with people? How often do you see the opposite, horses so comfortable in their environment that they want to interact with people? Horses and people are living, dynamic creatures and stress here and there is a part of being alive. However, how can we cultivate a relaxed state in ourselves and in our horses?

Reading the Eyes

When I first got back into horses several years ago, I remember learning how to train horses.  One evening my teacher and I were working with a green* pony on some groundwork exercises. I remember her saying, “Do you see the change in the eyes?  When the eyes soften, we stop the exercise.”

I’m looking at this pony’s eyes as we’re doing the exercise.  They were big and dark, and I remember thinking, “Ok, I see the eyes, but I don’t see the change.”  This was one of my very first lessons in training horses, and at the time, it was too subtle for me to recognize.

Today, after years of experience, I see the change.  In rehabbing old horses, often times they come with distant, withdrawn eyes.  Healthy horses are curious by nature, and when you look at their eyes they are engaged.  Sometimes you will hear people describe curious eyes as being bright.  My long-term goal in rehabbing old horses, is for them to have bright curious eyes and engaged with life.

Practice observing horses’ eyes.  Are their eyes drawing you in, or is there a wall between you and them?  The eyes can tell you a lot about a horse before you ever touch them.

Today, as I rehab old horses, I get to see the change in their eyes from withdrawn and distant to bright and curious.  It doesn’t happen overnight, but given the right environment, diet and exercise, it will happen.  And in a senior horse who has given years of service to humans, it’s wonderful to see them come back to life.

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Thunder’s eyes in his first year of rehab.

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Thunder’s eyes after three years of rehab.

*green means a horse who has just started training

Flower Essences and Grief in Horses

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.