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.