I find the behavior of wild horses regarding the death of their horse friends fascinating. There’s a wonderful facebook page called “Chasing Horses” that follows a herd of wild horses in the Dakotas. Here’s an excerpt from a post about one of the wild horses (named Wind Canyon) that had injured himself, unable to stand. Death was inevitable. The park that manages the herd decided to euthanize him. His body was removed from the park simply because if it became part of the food chain, the euthanasia drugs in his body could kill other animals. While it’s understandable why this was done, there are also ramifications for the surviving wild horses, especially the one named Trooper, who was Wind Canyon’s friend. Here’s an excerpt from the post below.
“We did find the area where Wind Canyon last laid filled with piles of horse poop everywhere. My opinion, and again, just my opinion, this is Troopers way of letting Wind Canyon know, should he return to this area, that he has been there and is looking for him. Understand that Trooper doesn’t understand that Wind Canyon has been removed from the park. He just knows his buddy is missing. I did see a photo that someone took of Trooper today and you can clearly see that he is looking for his old buddy.”
One of the things that bothered me about euthanizing Maya, was that she did not want to go. If I let her make the call, she would have died on her own. I’ve known many people who have euthanized their animals when the animal “told” them it was time. I had never heard of the opposite happening, until it happened with Maya.
In my research so far, what I’ve learned is that when she was in pain and no veterinary medication could help it, she was in the sympathetic nervous system state. That is the fight or flight.
Then I read about someone’s experience massaging above the eyes of a horse in a similar situation. She was able to slow the horse’s respiratory rate; the horse stopped thrashing around and closed his eyes. What I find fascinating about this is that she was able to help the horse move from the sympathetic to the parasympathetic nervous system (which is the rest state).
Thank you, Donna, for the tips about the acupressure points, and thank you Ellen for the suggestion of Lavender essential oil for a calming effect. What’s coming into focus for me is that while veterinary medicine could provide euthanasia, it could not provide the transition to the rest state in the dying process for Maya. What gives me hope is that through natural remedies that transition is possible.
Every death is unique and has its own set of circumstances, and there are no guarantees. Would I have still euthanized Maya? Perhaps. But I now have more tools to even try helping a horse to come to a rest state before they take their last breath.
From my martial arts training, it is in the rest state that there are a myriad of options that are not known to the rational brain. There is great hope there. Thank you, Maya, for allowing me to discover that.
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.
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.
Like people, horses are living, breathing, dynamic creatures. Occasional stress is a part of being alive. We will never be rid of it. Nor do we want to be. It keeps us functioning optimally. But when does stress cross over into being too much and becoming detrimental to our health or our horse‘s health? How do you know? When does it first begin to be a problem?
When I take in a senior horse to rehab, I usually have no idea what their initial training was like, and how young they were ridden. Many things can be improved or reversed in older horses, but what if the damage was never done in the first place? How much longer would our horses be able to do work if we waited to ride them until they were skeletally mature?
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.
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?
Cell biologist, Bruce Lipton, writes about what one of his professors in graduate school taught him regarding studying cells: If the cell isn’t doing well, change the environment. He saw this statement play out on a regular basis in his study of cells. 1
The same can be said of horses. If your horse is not thriving, look at their environment. What are they eating? Where do they live? How much movement do they have? What is their social environment? What stressors are they exposed to? All of these factors and more will affect their well-being and long-term health.
Here at God’s Window we answer each of those questions with only one goal in mind: What do our horses need to thrive?
It’s amazing how healthy senior horses can be when their needs are met in the right environment. Try it with your own horses. They just may surprise you.
A bare spot covering half of his ear, a winter coat that shed leaving bare spots of skin because the summer coat was slow to come in. My first year of horse ownership was full of surprises. I had know this 26 year-old gelding for several years before I owned him, and I didn’t recall these odd skin and coat issues.
My holistic vet assured me to not read too much into these coat issues because I had just dramatically improved his diet, changed his environment to a herd on acreage, and gave him regular exercise. For the first time in a long time this horse’s needs were put first and being met. With those changes alone, his body needed time to adjust and respond to the improvements. It’s also not uncommon for a body to unwind old patterns before making new ones.
She suggested I let a full year play out and see if the bare spot on his ear goes away on its own, and if he sheds more normally next spring. In addition, other than his moth-eaten appearance, he seemed to be in good health. His eyes were bright. He had energy, and got along well with his pasture mate.
Sure enough, the following spring he shed normally. The summer coat was right behind the winter coat as it shed. The following winter the bare spot on his ear completely filled in and was normal.
Does your horse have odd skin and coat issues going on? If so, for a long-term solution, look at the quality of the diet first, along with the environment he lives in and the exercise he gets. All of these areas contribute to the overall health of a horse. If any of these areas are lacking, it’s not uncommon for skin and coat issues to show up.
How do you know for sure if that’s the cause? You don’t, until you make the changes and then see what happens over the course of the next 1-2 years. If the problem is still there, then something else is going on. However, as in the case of my first horse, a year later the skin problems were gone, and all I had changed was his diet, along with environment and exercise.
Like anything worthwhile, there are no short-cuts. It is an investment of time and money. When your horse feels better and better as he ages, and you both are still around to enjoy each other’s company, it’s worth every penny. Take a chance. Invest in a high quality diet for your horse. Evaluate his living environment and exercise. You only have something wonderful to gain.
The second senior horse I took in, Thunder, came at 27 years old, just retired from therapy work with at-risk kids. He was a rock solid, bomb-proof horse. If someone was afraid of horses the therapy program matched them with Thunder. He would take care of them. If they made an error and inadvertently put themselves in a dangerous situation, he would make sure they didn’t get hurt. You could trust Thunder with a baby. He helped numerous kids and adults over the eight years he worked as a therapy horse.
I never thought he’d retire from therapy work. He was so dependable. When I received the call about his coming retirement I was shocked. What happened that he needed to be retired? The answer? He started biting people. This horse that would never hurt a fly had reached his limit. It wasn’t just one bite, but a pattern of biting. He was burned out and needed a break.
Therapy programs won’t last long if they have horses that bite people, so as a horse, the quickest way out the door is to start biting.
Therapy work is hard work for the counselors involved and the horses involved. There is constant exposure to difficult feelings and helping clients learn to create positive, healthy relationships.
Horses that externalize their stress by biting and kicking are not selected to do therapy work. Therapy programs need quiet, docile horses that are willing to help people. These horses also tend to internalize their stress. Hence, they don’t typically bite or kick. However, their stress can show up as foot problems, unexplained lameness, difficulty maintaining weight, gastro-intestinal issues, etc.
As equine therapy for people continues to grow, so will the realization of the need for stress management in therapy horses. We know the health problems associated with chronic stress in people. The same is true of horses.
Horses deserve to have a long, happy life in their service to people. A good stress management program will increase the longevity of the horses, and will be a win-win for all parties involved: both the people and the horses.
When I took in my second senior horse to rehab, Thunder, he did not want to be touched. He preferred to walk away rather than be groomed. If you stayed in his space he would nudge you away with his nose. He made it clear he needed space, and lots of it.
He had just retired from eight years as a therapy horse for at-risk youth doing a wonderful job taking care of and teaching the kids. The work, however, did not come without a price. He wore out, and he made it increasingly clear his last year on the job that he wanted to retire.
The first year he was in my care I rarely touched him. About nine months in, he would let me brush his legs while he took a nap in the field, but don’t touch his belly. If I tried to brush his belly he would walk off.
Today, three years later, he lets me brush all of him, and he even shows me his spots he wants scratched. It’s me who gets tired of scratching him, and I want to stop. It takes a long time before he decides he’s had enough scratching. This is a huge change from when he arrived three years ago.
What’s the secret to this change? If he walked off, I let him. I may have had an idea to brush him a particular day, but if he said no by walking off, then I respected that. Once he knew he could say no, and I would respect that no, then he started saying no less often.
Now I’m starting to see the yes when he puts his hips in my hands to scratch him. Because I have allowed him to walk off, I am thrilled when he decides to stay. That is his yes. It’s been three years in the making, and it’s a wonderful thing to have straight from the horse’s mouth.
When I began rehabbing senior horses my goal was to create an environment as close to their natural environment as possible. I would love to have a huge amount of acreage and turn my horses loose. The more they can take care of themselves on their own, the healthier they will be. Freedom of movement is a key ingredient to their well-being.
When I found a place to keep my first horse it was a several acre pasture with another horse and a shelter. I remember the owner of the property saying it wasn’t the Ritz Hotel. In my mind, to a horse, it was the Ritz. What more could my horse want? Six to eight acres to roam freely day and night with another horse, and a shelter in case he wanted to come in out of the rain.
He had come from an environment of a cement paddock, with some turn out on pasture in the summer. While he had it better than a stalled horse, who has very little space to move, the cement and small space took a toll on his aging body. Instead of feeling great as he aged, his aches and pains were increasing to the point of biting people. When he retired and I took him, I knew that just wide open space on real dirt would do wonders for him. He could start rehabbing his own body just by having the space to move freely day and night.
I even once read of a study done that showed that horses at pasture with no additional exercise program had the same level of fitness as stalled horses who were ridden daily for exercise.
Given the opportunity, horses will take care of themselves often times better than we can. The bonus for us is that we will have more years to enjoy our horses in a state of good health. What more could we want?