If you are familiar with what it takes to practically care for and manage horses on a daily basis you will know the importance of teaching horses to have good manners. Good manners meaning things like:
the horse respects your personal space so that you don’t get trampled
they are calm, quiet and responsive when being led somewhere on halter, so that you can safely and calmly get the horse to where it needs to go, especially in an emergency
they stand quietly when you pick up hooves to trim or clean, this will be especially helpful when dealing with a hoof injury like an abscess
they stand quietly to be mounted, and don’t immediately walk off as soon as you’re in the saddle (unless you specifically asked them to)
they are easy to catch (self-explanatory)
Horses are big animals, so aside from the basic consideration for safety, teaching your horse to have good manners will benefit the horse in situations where it is being handled by someone other than you. Imagine the horse has to be moved to a different home and the new handlers get a big, unruly brute. The chances of a badly behaved horse being sold on (usually to worse and worse homes, or even eventually some place like a kill pen) are much higher than a well behaved horse.
As cruel and unusual that may be – we must face the reality that we as handlers shape our horses, and many (if not most) people who handle horses very easily resort to very harsh methods of punishment, or the other extreme of allowing bad behaviour to get worse. Horses are the ones who inevitably pay the price for how we teach them to behave.
Yes, we are the ones who shape our horses to a very large degree – at least in terms of how they behave with people. Our behaviour with them is what will be reflected back to us in their behaviour with us. Horses very quickly and accurately show us who we are.
Have you ever heard your farrier or equine dentist talking about that one owner who has a yard full of nutty horses? A horse arrives there being an angel, but 6 months later it’s just as much of a hooligan as all the other horses there. This is not a coincidence. We don’t realise how much out actions and inactions shape our horses.
They take advantage when we are not practicing awareness of ourselves and our surroundings. Maybe they’ll creep ever closer, until they’re practically standing on top of us. Or maybe they’ll push us over slowly and subtly until the big circle we started off walking on has turned into a tiny circle in the middle of the arena. Maybe they’ll bolt through a gate we left open just for a few seconds to pick something up.
They learn what they can get away with in order to avoid being handled or doing work (because they’d really rather be eating grass with their friends most of the time). They learn they can cut hoof cleaning time short by snatching their hoof out of our hand. They learn they can avoid anything at all in the stable by keeping their butt closest to us. They learn they can get out of lunging by kicking out at us.
Often, it is the small behaviours that we don’t bother to correct that turn into big problems over time. I have learned to be absolutely specific and meticulous about what I am asking for from my horse, and about what I will allow and not allow him to do. When I am with him and handling him, I am the one who tells him where to stand, where to go, how fast to go, if he can eat or not, how much distance there must be between us, how to place his hooves when he comes to a halt – all of this has helped me to shape my horse to not be pushy, to respect my space, to walk calmly with me, to listen to my aids.
When my horse “misbehaves” or does not do what I wanted, I always check myself first: What was my body language saying to him in that moment? Have I been allowing small moments of bad habits to form? What was my equipment saying to him in that moment? Have I been practicing the same relationship dynamic and principles with him in every encounter, or have I been allowing him to lead in some moments (which breaks the basic principle of consistency with your horse – being the same every moment).
It’s up to us to make sure that our horses are as safe as is reasonably possible, not just for our own safety, but for their futures as well.
When we got Charlie in the winter of 2009, he already had a soft tissue weakness in his left hind leg.
When we went to see him before we purchased him, the woman introducing us to him explained that his leg would “stock up” at night, where his left hind leg by the fetlock would swell up a little bit, but then as he walks and moves around during the day the leg would go back to normal.
It seemed a minor issue so we didn’t really pay much attention to it. I liked his presence and he had a background in natural horsemanship which was something we were pursuing on the farm, so we decided to buy him.
A little while after, Cerise suggested we investigate if there was anything to be done about his leg stocking up.
After a consultation with Dr Lara Schmidt, a homeopathic vet, we bandaged him for a few weeks with a bandage soaked in Epsom salts (known for drawing out toxins), and then a few weeks with a regular bandage on. His leg was looking as good as all of his other legs. Yay!
But then, sometime after that, we arrived at the stables one morning and discovered Charlie in his stable and his entire left hind leg was swollen all the way from his hip to his hoof. I remember referring to it as an ‘elephant leg’ as his leg was so swollen that all the natural curves were almost unrecognizable (similar to the horse in this picture)
We called in the vet and eventually it was concluded that he had a case of cellulitis, which is an infection of the soft tissue. The treatment called for hydrotherapy in the form of hosing his leg down, alternating hot and cold compresses (for which we used towels), exercise to stimulate circulation in his leg and a course of antibiotics administered via intramuscular injection to fight the infection.
The huge flare up eventually calmed down, but his leg never went back to ‘normal’ (where it was the same as his other legs). It was now permanently stocked up both during the night and daytime.
Just when we thought that the whole situation had stabilised, we would find him on occasion in the stable with a swollen leg (at that time it was about twice a year). It never got quite as severe as the first time where it went all the way up to his hip – but both his fetlock and hock would be swollen, hot to the touch and moving/exercising would be painful. During the more severe bouts he would be unable to bear any weight on the leg for the first day. We’d start the whole treatment all over again until his leg was back to the ‘new normal’. His flare ups did not seem to match any particular pattern, as anything from a scratch, bite, sudden extreme change in weather, onset of disease (last year he was battling with both a flare up AND African Horse Sickness) – would set off another bout of swelling and pain.
In 2013 he had quite a few flare ups, one after the other with minimal recovery period in between. This was obviously very unpleasant as each flare up would come with pain and discomfort – which is no way to live for a horse. Our treatment options were starting run out, antibiotics are only effective for so long before their efficacy diminishes, as well as the fact that they have significant side effects on the liver and kidneys. At some point, one of the vets suggested that we do a 50 day course of unconventional antibiotics (designed for chickens) to really try to get aaall of the harmful bacteria out. He was doing very well while on the antibiotics, but not long after finishing the course – you guessed it – he had another flare up.
At that stage, thankfully the flare ups were less frequent so that he had lots of normal fun time during the day with his herd and we could go on exercising as usual.
Knowing that the antibiotics were not really an option anymore as they barely had any effect in the last few treatments, and on top of that we’ve basically used all the different strains available – we knew that something was going to have to give in the near future. If we continue with antibiotics, he might succumb to liver and kidney problems well before his leg problem becomes too much – or we could try a different course of treatment that involves no antibiotics and hope for the best. If all else fails and his life becomes one of misery: we put him down.
So this past December we got to this crossroad, where he had yet another flare up.
In all the years that we’ve been walking this path together, I have scrambled into the far corners of the internet to find alternatives, anything that we could try – but I couldn’t find anything other than the regular antibiotic/hosing/exercise treatment we had been following…
What to do?
Patsy Devine, who runs Triple H Horsemanship Centre South Africa and often works with Cerise and her horse on the farm, shared her experience with one of her own horses, Dancer, who had a similar recurring soft tissue infection caused originally by a snake bite. She would soak Dancer’s leg in ice-cold water and then in hot water with Epsom salts and herbs (rose geranium, rosemary, ginger) every day for 10 – 20 minutes. Initially, Dancer showed a preference for the cold soak and a few years later showed a preference for the hot water treatment. Patsy always followed the preference of Dancer as far as possible and did the treatment that gave her the most relief. This treatment, along with exercise, would assist Dancer’s body to deal with the infection effectively. (The horse was eventually put down as she was already old and the strain of the flare ups was getting too much with too much pain)
So with our lack of options, we thought: why not?
In the meantime, LJ and Maite (who take care of the chickens and ducks on the farm), had started growing and collecting a wide range of herbs for medicinal purposes.
Along with the hot water treatments, we would add Epsom salts, various essential oils for relaxation, antiseptic, anti-inflammatory and antiseptic purposes and herbs with the same medical properties as well as increased circulation and pain easing qualities.
We started making him herbal teas which were added to his lunch, late afternoon and evening meals.
Another part of the treatment which we had been doing after a visit from an equine physio, was putting Acriflavine in Glycerine (an antiseptic solutions commonly found at vets and tack shops) on his leg during the day. This basically means we’d be put on a liquid which generates heat and a bandage over it, so that the heat assists with circulation in his leg.
We did this when he had a bulge by his fetlock to assist with minimising the swelling, which in turn made movement more comfortable for him (and so he would move more by himself and so increase circulation by himself).
When Lj, Maite and Cerise went to stock up on herbs at the local supplier, they got a recipe from the woman managing the nursery for a sort of oil infusion with herbs.
We chopped up various herbs, with relatively more comfrey and willow bark to assist with healing and pain.
Initially we put the oil on twice a day, currently we only put the oil on before he goes back into the stable at night.
Before we started the new treatment, we would wash his leg with antiseptic shampoo (in case he has any wounds or scrapes that could aggravate the infection) and then put a bandage on over a filler to help keep the leg in its ‘good shape’. On bad days, we’d soak the filler in hot Epsom salt water to assist with drainage.
With the new treatment we’ve been following, we are putting oil on after the antiseptic wash but haven’t had to put the night bandage on again, with the leg remaining quite in shape throughout the night!
At the moment his leg is not yet completely stable (some mornings it looks like he is still slightly more swollen than what we’re used to). We are still giving the tea, putting on the oil infusion, giving him homeopathic support and exercising him once or twice a day – depending on how his leg is doing.
If anything changes or any new developments come up – we will share.
All in all, we’re pretty pleased with the development of his leg. Although it has been slow (taking two weeks rather than 3-5 days when using antibiotics) we’re glad to be finding a way to treat his leg without having to resort to antibiotics, which will do him good in the long run.