It’s about listening, honoring and knowing each horse as an individual, and awareness of all horses as a species.
This is a difficult topic for me. As a survivor of abuse, I find triggers for my own anxiety in the mere thought of any being suffering demoralization, neglect or even worse, violence. Because I run a sanctuary for horses, I see the cost in the emotional, mental and physical bodies of the horses we care for day in, day out.
Yet, the horses (and long ears) find it in themselves to forgive and come around to trusting again. At least, they learn that they can trust us because we work very hard to be trustworthy.
At the sanctuary, we had a mare come in who had to be 30 years old. She was foundered badly and her body was scarred in a unique way. Damaru showed the classic scarring of a victim of “horse tripping” – a violent and deadly form of amusement inflicted upon horses. While we tried as best we could to heal her on all levels, her body just could not repair the damage.
But, Damaru knew love. Great, boundless affection and compassion were wrapped around her every day. She was cherished and she responded in kind; she nuzzled us for treats, she stood calmly for treatments and care and her soul was healed before her body finally gave out.
Keeping her free of pain became more and more difficult and we finally made the decision to euthanize her (surrounded by those who loved her)… it was the final and ultimate act of love. We were honored to have known her!
While Damaru was with us “after the fact” of her abuse, I watched a horrid scene of victimization that I was powerless to prevent one time when I was leaving a facility where we were preparing for a Horse Trials. I was to be the “cross country steward” that weekend and had been out on the course inspecting the jumps. As I was driving out, I saw a group of men on horseback repetitively roping a young donkey. She was terrified.
My truck windows were down and I could hear the men yelling and laughing – they sounded quite drunk. I was alone except for them at the facility. It was late evening and as I watched the donkey tremble and try to duck away from them, it felt like I was watching a gang rape. If I had tried to intervene, I would likely have been in great danger. I couldn’t call the authorities, what these monsters were doing was perfectly legal, acceptable in the “cowboy” circles…
I cried all the way home and all night. How could humans have so little respect for the precious life they were tormenting? How could I be so impotent in my ability to help her? I decided to try to buy her when I went out the next day. She was gone. So were the cowboys who had abused her. But, in the world of “livestock”, what they were doing was not considered abuse. In my world, it was the definition!
The blatant mishandling and demoralization in those two examples is easy to recognize. What I saw a few months ago is a bit more difficult for some people to understand as abusive. I had gone to an event to watch a trainer’s demonstration and went down to the arena early. This trainer was standing outside the arena with a coming three year old filly all saddled, wearing a halter. He stood beside her with her lead shank looped through a pipe on the fence, standing her just above a patch of green grass. The grass was inches below her muzzle and every time she reached down to take a bite; he hit her in the head with the end of the lead rope. Over and over…
I decided that I couldn’t watch any more. I left. Many people might think that he was “training” her – perhaps “showing her who was boss”. I saw disrespect that was causing confusion and a situation that he (as the one who was supposed to be the thinking part of the team) could have resolved by simply holding her over by the abundant dirt and sand that offered no temptation.
Horses learn that we are either kind and aware or unkind and oblivious.
Horses become victims when the humans responsible for their wellbeing are either deliberately cruel, unconsciously neglectful, blind and deaf to their needs or blatantly self serving. As a species, we can do better. And I live my life trying to be a voice for the voiceless. Let’s all do better.
We have been adding to the herd on the track system at Dharmahorse Two. LungTa (the Draft gelding) and 4 mares have become a bonded herd with Joe (28 year old OTTB) needing his own private space and the newest addition, Teaberry, coming out of quarantine. Teaberry went to the central giant round pen four days ago and was integrated into the herd yesterday… he is a gelding, a youngster for DH at age 7! He and Luna hit it off (kids, they’re just kids!). We put Juniper in a side pen so she wouldn’t ramrod the new kiddo at first.
Last night, LungTa took Dream Cat (little Arabian mare) to a far corner of the track. This morning he still had her sequestered there. We brought Molly (the world’s greatest mule) and Bodhi over today and they are in the smaller track system by Joe. All was going well… except, LungTa and Dream Cat had not been near the water tubs!
I couldn’t let them go long without drinking water – no matter what I did, LungTa channeled her back to the far corner. So, we put Teaberry back in the separate pen, Juniper back in the herd and I had to put Dream Cat in the central round pen for tonight where she will have her own water. She drank and drank! Then LungTa came back up the feeding stations / water area and HE drank and drank. Whew!!
What seem like the best of plans can work out differently than expected. Maybe some people would not have noticed that LungTa and Dream Cat were never going down to the waters… maybe an impaction colic (or two) would have been tomorrow’s destiny. But, we juggled things to make everyone as safe as we could. We hope to sleep tonight, we are weary.
Because we had to change Joe’s pen and now he is fenced off from his beloved Yucca (he scratches himself on it), we put a big railroad tie deep in the ground and attached nobbley scratching pads all around it. Joe loves it! And, no worries, it’s supposed to get warm enough tomorrow for me to soak him in emulsified Jojoba oil and warm water (he has chronic dry skin, I have total empathy).
Joe is gaining weight slowly. Teaberry is sound, he has been trotting and cantering around all day. Bodhi loves Molly, Molly is liking Bodhi well enough… Clemmy pretty much loves everyone and she is sound enough (she’s very “over in the knees”) to gallop full tilt across the whole yard! We left lights on around the DH2 Yard so no one loses their bearings tonight. Loving horses is all about these things.
Water is Life. If LungTa and Dream Cat were not going to go to the water tubs, we, the thinking, responsible ones, had to find a solution. There is always a solution. Perhaps I will actually sleep tonight!
We used to live in Tucumcari, New Mexico. In 1977, my Father broke his back and we discovered that our Newspaper Corporation would have to declare bankruptcy – that was on December 21st. On December 23rd, we were sitting with our Editor at our home south of town. The house had no windows on it’s west side and was entirely glass on the east. As we sat, discussing the fate of our business (with 45 mph winds whipping across the dry, native grasses that surrounded us), my brother and I asked each other several times, “Do you smell smoke?”…
I was looking out the back, toward Tucumcari Mountain when suddenly, the whole world was on fire. The feeling cannot be described. I screamed, we all ran out the front door and the sight was like Hades itself. Flames were leaping over parked vehicles, licking up trees and whirling full speed across the native pasture of our 40 acres right for the huge wooden barn full of shavings and our beloved horses.
There was a mare with her foal, two young stallions, more mares and many geldings, a small pony and a half Draft horse. They were trapped and all I could think was, “RUN”. And I did. All I can figure is that I can run at over 45 mph because I beat the flames to the barn. I threw open the garage door at the south end and began opening stall doors frantically. Each horse trotted (some galloped) out of their stall and out onto the 40 acres. The blessing was that I had always just opened stall doors to let them out onto the (now dry) pasture and they simply ran on out from habit.
When they all had gone out, I slammed the end door shut and ran, gasping, to the well house. I opened all the taps and started hosing down the building as my brother and my Mum caught up with me. The horses were confused but not panicked. They gathered in little groups on bare patches of land and the fires rolled around them, the air full of red and black smoke.
We could not see past 20 meters into the smoke and the heat was overwhelming. I pulled my shirt off and wrapped it around my face to breathe through it. Crying, praying, cursing and trying to breathe, I watched embers landing on the roof of the giant barn. What saved the barn, besides the flood of water we were pouring all over it, was the thick coating my Mum had had applied to the (leaking) roof the previous summer. It was, in retrospect, not flammable!
I remember vomiting twice, coughing up blood later, and my eyes swelling almost shut as we suddenly thought about our house! I stayed with the horses. My Mum and brother ran back to the house – it was dark like evening time (at mid-afternoon). I later heard the story of how my Grandmother, Mum and Brother and our Editor used hoses until the home well ran dry, then used buckets to throw water from the swimming pool onto the trees, bushes, under cars and onto the roof of the house. It was surreal.
As I collapsed in the dirt by the barn, too dry to cry anymore, through the smoke, I saw the flashing lights of fire trucks racing across the fields – they just rammed through the wire fences, sirens screaming, and screeched up to the barn to douse it with water then head to our neighbor’s house. More arrived, as the fire burned out on our land, and began soaking the huge manure pile (far enough from the barn) that was now smoldering. Embers were flying everywhere.
I realized that the horses were now loose and most of the fences were down… but they stayed clustered on familiar land and were unnaturally calm. In shock, I suppose, I knew I was.
We later found out that an RV caught fire and kept driving, setting fire to 3 counties of dry grass and brush. The incident made the national news where they said no homes nor humans were threatened – many of us were enraged by that statement!
As things settled and the fully soaked, sopping wet barn seemed safe, I began catching the horses and putting them into their stalls. It was night, the electricity was off, it was getting cold and I was exhausted. The family gathered to assess the situation. We decided that I would sleep in a car driven down and parked beside the barn. Dotted all across the countryside were glowing, smoldering cedar fence posts that looked like thousands of campfires in the distance. And the huge, composted manure pile glowed like a flying saucer. It was terrifying. Over the next few weeks, road equipment kept coming out to grade through that pile and fire trucks came to soak it, over and over. Manure is amazing fuel.
I spent each night in that car for a week and we spent the days repairing fences so we could turn horses out again. Every now and then, at night, I would see a distant Mesquite tree or Chaparral blaze up and burn out over several hours. Late nights were when I could see the extent of the lingering fires… Day time was when the charcoal encrusted vistas showed the damage. My brother and I walked the land with shovels, putting out every smoking discovery, hoping to see less fires the next night.
I have faced other wildfires through the decades, some bigger even, some hotter, some in forests – nothing ever felt so overwhelming as the one in Tucumcari when I realized that all of my horses were standing, trusting, in my wooden barn, bedded in dry wood shavings with that raging fire heading full speed straight for them. Even now, if I smell smoke, my fight or flight response kicks in.
I used to be embarrassed by my arm. After falling through the window and having my hand reattached (severed tendons, nerves, arteries and veins), I have always worn long sleeved shirts. The scars are nothing, really, now – compared to how they looked for those first few years… like an arm sliced up to use in a sandwich.
My hands worked so hard all my life. Decades of struggle; loading and unloading hay, holding onto spooking colts, keeping stallions under control, running printing presses, riding Harley’s, cleaning out needle valves on the carburetor of my Dodge PowerWagon, planting gardens, scrubbing Operating rooms, changing tires, dyeing clothing, kneading bread dough….. the things horsewomen do and healers do… catching my granddaughter at her birth, holding my Mum’s hand as she passed over, holding disabled children on patient old horses…
My hands have been useful. And they have seemed so ugly to me. I had Mark take a photo of the sore my new shoe created on my toe (it should not have happened, there is a nasty seam in one shoe). I saw my hands. I cried. How could they get so battered… so OLD? I’m only 63 years old; they look like a hundred.
Then I thought about all they do and have done. In spite of a near crippling injury and being stepped upon by a horse; being exposed to countless hours in water and being soaked in cleansers… they are so resilient, considering. Years of wearing gloves and not wearing gloves. They have been useful.
I searched for the photo from our wedding, of Mark and me with our rings. I found it. I had turned my hand over because the palm is less abused looking. And I thought about how he, Mark, beloved friend and husband “took” that hand that day. He put a beautiful ring on a funky old finger and never has he seen these hands as ugly.
Tonight I watch them struggle to type, one letter at a time… they serve me well. They succeed even when they ache to the bone. They are precious. They may drop silverware in public and let glasses slip to the floor… let go of the longe line, drop the wand, cramp up and let go of the hay twine, but then, after, they pick things up again.
A friend explained this concept to me a few weeks ago as I described to him how one of our horses in Sanctuary gets confused when a rider gets on him and “disappears” from sight. A light bulb turned on in me. Diamond is not being obstinate, not obtuse, he genuinely does not understand what has happened to the person who mounts him.
While that may seem hard to fathom, after years now of working to heal his lameness, we had not been as connected to him as a riding horse. When soundness returned, we were careful to move gradually with him under saddle, making certain the footing for him was cushioned and that he only walked (for months). With another horse in the arena or with me walking along watching him and coaching a rider, he seemed confident enough and willing to engage. I remained dedicated to getting and keeping him physically sound, without realizing that he had big gaps in his education and perception.
As students tried to take him out on the rail in the arena, away from me or another horse, he would worry. The rein and leg aids seemed to have little meaning to him. I knew he had been at a camp in the mountains, doing trail rides with children before he came to us. Thinking about this, I began to figure out that Diamond was comfortable as a “follower” and he likely only walked down the trails with his nose at another horse’s bum. He did not conceptualize a person sitting in the saddle giving him signals… he followed the other horses.
So, when we do a lesson on him, our success in getting him away from me and listening to his rider came with having his rider talk her directions to him continuously. If he is hearing her verbal signals, he stays connected enough to feel at ease and go where she wishes. If she is silent, he shuts down as if he has dropped an anchor and his confidence evaporates!
I then began thinking about the trainers who bring a young horse’s head and neck around to the saddle as they mount and stand during those first rides. It does effectively keep the horse from bolting, rearing or bucking, especially if one is starting the youngster without assistance – but now, I realize that the horse really sees where the rider has gone!
Oh yes, horses have great peripheral vision and can certainly see that something is there on their sides, but to know that a person is up there… I’m just not sure it comes by default.
We are working with Diamond. Filling in gaps, substituting the leg and rein aids for verbal aids. As time passes, I see him becoming more confident. I like him a lot and I want him to be able to comprehend what is going on, not just act as an automaton from being flooded and losing his desire to live. That’s not the way we operate here.
I think about this constantly. I had some interaction with a woman who was chastising me for using a wand to direct my horse around me (loose in a turn out, no round pen, no lines or ropes) as he circled me happily. She is an advocate of clicker training.
So am I. I worked at a rescue that brought in Draft mares and foals from the PMU industry. There was an aggressive mare there whose daughter was still with her as a coming 3 year old! I used the clicker schooling (marking desired behavior) and was able to accomplish a lot with the mare to make her safer and help her understand us.
I trained Saddle Seat at one point back east; I rode colts off the track aiming to make them H/J prospects while in Florida; I had a blind retired Eventer that I rode! I worked with 3 year old colts and fillies who had never seen a human being until they were chased into stock trailers and unloaded into my barn aisle! I rode most of them eventually, but it was a long journey to get to the trust.
I rode under Charles deKunffy and trail rode my own mules… there are hundreds of ways to do things with horses and all of them are correct IF they do no harm.
You know why people get adamant about a particular style of training or handling or feeding a horse? It is because they’ve had success with it. That’s all. And because many roads can lead to the same destination, many people have lots of successes. That’s very cool!
I sit here tonight thinking about how new, green horse peeps must feel confused or overwhelmed sometimes (especially with the endless information online) and wonder which is the “Right Way” with horses.
Imagine how confused and overwhelmed horses must feel by our methods! Truth is, horses are beyond remarkable. They can go from “owner” to “owner” and have to relearn or rethink what the signals and responses are from person to person. And try they do – horses want to please us!
If you are working with your horse and you are both safe and happy and understanding each other. You are doing it the Right Way.
That is our motto at Dharmahorse Equine Sanctuary. It has more to do with the handling and schooling of horses than with our mission of rescue and care, but it is a thread that weaves itself through every endeavor. Compassion is more about empathy than about sympathy. While the two seem synonymous, they have distinct differences. We can feel both toward a horse who arrives starved, injured or abused, but it is the empathy that feeds compassion. Being able to imagine oneself in the “shoes” of another is the first step toward true compassion.
And life experiences give us that empathetic ability. Experiences are gathered through life like points on a scale from mild to extreme and we all have our own unique set of them. If we have never stubbed our toe, we do not cringe and gasp when someone describes ramming their foot into a cabinet in the dark. We can say that we “feel sorry” for them (sympathy), but we don’t relate on a comparative level. We have no empathy with them.
Compassion comes from awareness. With horses, we need to “think like a horse” to understand their perspective as prey animals designed to move across vast distances as part of a herd. Any life with us requires that they adapt to being confined on some level and dependent upon us for all their needs.
We need to become aware of how our lifestyles can impact the animals’ lives. They certainly learn to adapt to us, but that can sometimes mean that they acquire strange (to us) behaviors as coping skills. At the Sanctuary, we have a young horse who was starved nearly to death twice before she was three years old! Food triggers unusual behaviors in her (understandably) that include kicking the pipe bars of her fence as if to say “Don’t forget me!” as we start feeding a meal. We see these adaptations and adjustments in all the species we bring into our lives.
If a dog runs to the closet at 3:00 AM and starts digging in the corner (don’t yell “bad dog!” – I always say, “Good dog doing a bad thing”) we must try to understand why this is happening and give him something else to do.
Most predators, like our dogs and cats, re-act to stimulus. Their instincts are intact, even if the most hunting action they get is trying to locate the piece of popcorn that shot under the refrigerator last week. So the best trained dog and the sweetest cat in the world will both re-act without thinking when a bird flops down from the rafters to grab a grasshopper.
As you become aware of the instincts and qualities that your animal shares with his species, you can prepare his surroundings to enhance the things you want and to discourage the things you don’t want from him. Socializing a dog with people and other animals is of supreme importance because those very instincts that ensured his species’ survival in the past are the deep seated stimulus that could spark an attack under certain circumstances.
And teaching a horse to lead and tie and stand for the hoof trimmer or Veterinarian and to load into a trailer, etc. can ensure that his future life, should it turn out in another person’s care, will be free of the brutality someone might resort to in an effort to accomplish their goals. A horse with a broad education and exposure to many stimuli is less likely to panic when facing something new.
Compassion encompasses the training and treatment of horses if we wish to communicate on the deepest level. This also extrapolates to our interactions with all animals and even each other. Especially with children and young animals, our first feeling might be that they are deliberately challenging us when, in all likelihood, they are simply confused or uncertain. By taking a moment to breathe and “put ourselves in their place”, we can draw upon compassion to solve problems.
A horse living 22 hours in a box stall is very much like one of us living in a large closet. When the door is opened and we walk out into the fresh air, we might very likely need to kick up our heels or squeal for joy. A dog living at the end of a chain would likely become overwhelmed with enthusiasm upon seeing anyone who might spend some time with him. Feeling sympathy, we could feel sorry for them and say, “Oh poor creature”. Feeling empathy, we can imagine ourselves in similar circumstances and look for a way to help. By discussing the animal’s situation with the owner, we might find a way to help them build a proper fence to allow more freedom… some compassion based, creative thinking might help everyone involved. Empathy for an owner who has a horse or a dog he cannot handle could lead us into brainstorming solutions. Criticism, anger and blaming will certainly not help an animal, an owner, the situation or our own blood pressure (except in cases of abuse, when intervention through the authorities is needed). To begin with compassion, with empathy, has at least the possibility of improving a situation.
And holding our own actions up to the light of compassionate care, we can see when rushing a horse through a needed lesson or skipping over the foundation building experiences needed, especially for the young horse, will actually take longer than deliberate, consistent communication.
Putting ourselves “in his shoes”, we can see how the horse who is afraid to make a mistake becomes robotic and stingy with his responses to our requests.
We see how people who connect with the hurt and hurting horses can find healing for themselves as well. We are all in this together.
Last week I was talking with a friend whose partner was having multiple maladies and could not go to work. She told me about his original problem – he was having leg cramps that kept him up at night. His doctor gave him a prescription for a sleep aid… the sleep remedy gave him anxiety attacks. He was given a prescription to suppress anxiety; which caused dizziness and he bruised his elbow badly after almost falling… so pain killers were added to his “stew”.
All of this was attempting to address the symptoms and nothing was addressing the original problem and what might have caused it – probably dehydration and/or low minerals like Magnesium! I have watched this with horses. Owners want immediate answers, immediate “relief” for the horse, so pharmaceuticals are added and tweaked until the side effects that accumulate become a bigger problem than the original complaint.
Don’t get me wrong – we need to suppress symptoms for our animals, we must be humane. But we must not consider that kind of relief as a cure… it is not. The underlying cause of the problem still exists.
A big old Stew of antibiotics, pain killers, steroids and/or vaccines are cooked up to “attack” a problem. For horses, a Veterinary farm call isn’t cheap, so many procedures are stacked to get the most stuff done for the money…
And the result of this desired outcome of money saved can often develop into much more work to do detoxing the affects of the original medications, even the risk of the horse’s life. “Seven way” and “Nine way” vaccine combinations given at the same time as a dewormer and sedation for dental work… ulcer meds, Cushings meds, tranquilizers for procedures (even for training), injections into joints, chemicals to suppress estrus, the list of possibilities for animals is astonishing. For humans, it’s mind boggling – just watch television – ads for a drug running 10 times as long as an ad for tires (and costing 10 times as much); listing side effects as young families smile and laugh and eat elegant food in a posh house… Then the ads begin from lawyers with class action lawsuits against the drug companies for all the deaths and trauma inflicted. All mixed up in an unhealthy stew.
Decades ago I taught classes at our University about healing horses and healing dogs through Nature. Holistic modalities and the different embodiments of our animals were my focus. I had people constantly asking how I determined which modality to use for an illness or injury – I needed to find a good way to describe my processes and I started calling it “Life Wave Integration”: honoring the Physical, Emotional, Mental and Spirit bodies of our animals. I wrote a book (now out of print), published before the Amazon way, that described this balancing process. It was called “The Well-Being of Pets & Companions”.
In my system, we used herbs and nutrition for the physical body; flower essences for the emotional body; essential oils for the mental body and stones/crystals for the spirit.
We, then and now, rely upon simple things – Colloidal Silver to kill pathogens; minerals to support bones and muscle and hooves; Homeopathics to realign the bodies… nutrition as medicine and making that as simple and clean as possible.
I would never tell someone to stop medications, ignore their Veterinarian, change their priorities. If one stops using allopathy, there must be a different plan to follow. You cannot just say, “I’ll never vaccinate again” without being aware of the need for and the methods to strengthen the immune system. Nature provides the methods… the baby’s first “milk” of colostrum gives the antibodies for his protection. Nature knows. The plants a horse instinctively seeks out and eats as a browser will have system boosting properties.
And for us, when we must use a vaccine, we give homeopathic Ledum and Thuja to prevent damages… hopefully. We feed red beets to clear toxins, burdock root to support the liver, calendula blossom for skin clearing, fresh parsley for the kidneys, hawthorn berries for the heart… every day, we choose foods to address the needs of each individual horse. Our horses thrive and heal… we even feed a lot of Magnesium!