We often impose our personal interpretations onto the world around us – this can be seen especially in our relationships with animals. Animals are unable to speak for themselves using our method of communication (words) and so must rely on their behaviour to try to communicate. We, though, have the tendency to completely ignore their behaviour and place our own interpretation of the situation onto them.
Let’s use horses as an example. They can be flighty, silly, dramatic and sometimes a little dull – or so we think. We make the mistake of judging them as humans. Actually, we make the mistake of judging them, period. When you judge someone or something, you are essentially imposing your views, opinions and beliefs onto them, and in so doing you close yourself off from really looking, really listening and really being open to hear what they’re saying (whether they’re saying it in word or deed). We see the behaviour of others through our own perceptions – we do not fully immerse ourselves within who they are.
With horses, we often fail to take into consideration that they do not think the same way we do, they do not have the same drives, they do not interpret the world around them in the same way. And yet, we label them with very human qualities such as being defiant, dominant, stupid and more. How can we be open to seeing through their eyes, feeling their discomfort and tuning into their emotions if we have already judged them as being this or that?
I recently experienced this kind of moment where my mind took the reins and dismissed a horse’s behaviour of showing his physical discomfort as being him just being “naughty” and a “drama queen” as he was acting up in his stable while getting repellent wiped on. He had been perfectly well behaved every time he was dipped for years before that – so I assumed that he was just full of the joys of summer and being difficult because he felt like it. It turned out that, when I checked on an itchy spot a day or two later up in his thighs, he actually had some dried up skin flaking off. Well did I feel like an idiot and an a**. The repellent, for whatever reason, had burnt his skin – enough for the very top layer to dry up and fall off. Of course it could have been much worse – it was very mild and could be equated to getting a rather rough facial exfoliation – but it was more than enough for me to want to kick myself for not listening to him when he was saying, as loudly as he could without hurting anyone, that we were hurting him.
When I put myself in horse’s shoes I find it difficult to understand how they are so patient and kind to us even when we are so utterly oblivious to what they’re trying to tell us. It is rare to come across a horse that resorts to aggression. Their ability to forgive and keep giving us opportunities to change is astounding. That is the kind of patience and kindness that I strive for in all my dealings with man and animal.
Why don’t we listen when these big, gentle creatures speak to us? Yes, we may not understand their language well enough – though I see that the biggest obstacle is our mind set. We automatically believe that we are right. We automatically justify our interpretations of their behaviour and refuse to consider any other possibilities. We are stubborn and self righteous, and do not like admitting that we are wrong. But who pays for our attitude? Those who are kindest, those who give us everything they have for nothing in return.
For some strange reason, we humans tend to not spend much time or effort in understanding the world, people, animals and system around us. We function very much (generally speaking) as ‘direct-line thinkers’ and project how we see and understand the world onto everything and everyone around us. Unfortunately, this can have some very unpleasant consequences for the people, animals and earth that are at our mercy.
We open up a chocolate bar, eat it and are left with a wrapper. What can one do with a wrapper? Not much, really. Toss it in the trash and never think of it again. In such a simple action, we miss the impact that we have on the world around us – we do not ask the question: where does the wrapper end up? Out of sight, out of mind. I would like to show in this post how this direct line thinking can influence our ability to develop effective communication and understanding with horses – because, sadly, there are so few people who make the effort to really change the way they think.
A common example of direct line thinking when dealing with horses is: if the horse doesn’t do what you want, hit him until he does.
Horse won’t load? Beat him into the box.
Horse needs to run faster? Hit him harder.
Horse spooks at something and wants to bolt? Hit him to get his attention.
These things are common – so common that they are often regarded as acceptable treatment of “your personal property”.
We humans tend to take the shortest route from A to B – and when things don’t go our way we tend to respond with anger. We blame the things around us for not doing what they’re supposed to. We blame our horses for being stupid, or silly, or naughty. What do we keep missing? What are we not seeing?
Take a step back and take a wide view of these scenarios. What do you see? Let me tell you what I see:
I see horses trying to communicate their feelings to their humans in hundreds of small and different ways. I see humans ignoring their horse’s messages.
I see horses who see no other way to get their point across other than resorting to extreme behaviour. I see humans punishing their horses for their desperate attempts at communication.
I see a myriad of small and large messages that horses try to express in the only ways they know how. I see no one acknowledging these messages.
Horses are always telling us things, they are always giving us information. We are the ones who must change our way of thinking and interpreting behaviour to understand the horse – not the other way around. Horses do not have our capacity for adaptation – they cannot change the way they think and behave independently in order to accommodate our shortcomings. We are the ones who are responsible for ensuring that there is a clear line of communication – and this means having a dialogue (where information goes both ways) and not a monologue (where only one party is speaking).
Most of us are not naturally skilled at interpreting the nuances of horse behaviour – it is something that must be shown to us, it must be learned by us. There are very few people who have been able to learn directly, and only, from horses. Taking on the responsibility of working with or caring for horses requires that we develop ourselves in such a way that we can start understanding the horse – because without understanding communication will be ineffective.
Allow me to paint you a picture: When I first started working with Buddy a couple years ago, I did not yet have the understanding or ability to interpret his behaviour accurately (his attempts to communicate). I therefore interpreted his responses to me as being naughty and defiant. I reached a point (thankfully it didn’t take very long at all!) where I realised that I needed help – I couldn’t go on having these arguments with him – more importantly, I didn’t want to do things in that way. So I called up my friend and very skilled teacher, Patsy Devine of Triple H Horsemanship Center, and I asked her to come out and give me a hand. Well let me tell you, Patsy saw an entirely different picture to what I thought I had been seeing. She saw an incredibly intelligent, willing and gentle soul who just needed a slightly different approach to what I had been attempting. I felt like a complete ass. I berated myself for being so arrogant, so ignorant. I like to think that moment was the real beginning of my journey into horsemanship. From that moment on I committed myself to being more aware, more observant, more understanding and most importantly: more patient. This shift within me started changing so much. Before then I was practicing natural horsemanship, but after that moment I started living it. Of course I didn’t change all of my bad habits all at once, it was the start of a process that I intend to walk for the rest of my days. I am committed to always be a student, to always be open to learn more, see more and be humble. None of this would have been possible if I hadn’t met Patsy, for which I am so, so, so grateful.
It’s OK for us to admit we’ve been wrong. It’s OK for us to admit we’ve made mistakes. We owe it to the animals on this planet to own up to our mistakes and take responsibility for being better to them and for them.
Horses can see right through you. It can be an interesting experience, standing face to face with such a large, living creature and know that they probably see you more clearly than you see yourself. If you go to a horse while you’re having a bad day, you can be sure that your horse will let you know, in no uncertain terms, that who you are in that moment is not acceptable. Unfortunately for horses, we seldom listen and will attribute their communication to being “bad bahaviour” and, mostly likely, attempt to enforce ourselves on them.
One of the first things my teacher, Patsy Devine of Triple H Horsemanship, taught me is that you cannot bring your emotions with you when you go to your horse. You can almost guarantee that doing so will create a situation in which neither you nor your horse are having a good time. Sometimes I go to the horses when I’m feeling low – but with the deliberate goal of releasing that feeling. I do not allow myself to try and do anything with a horse if I am not holding that goal within me, because I know that the experience will just not be enjoyable.
Getting angry with your horse is similar to getting angry with an infant who is not yet capable of vocalizing their wants and needs – you cannot expect that they will understand you better because you’re now angry or frustrated with their lack of understanding. It sounds unreasonable now – but we all have been guilty of doing this at least once in our lives. Logically we know that anger is not constructive, especially when working with animals, yet sometimes we do get frustrated. It is in these moments that we need to be very strict with ourselves. We need to make sure that we do not act in anger – because that is when we do things we later regret.
This actually translates to all areas of life – getting angry or frustrated is seldom (if ever) constructive – so I propose that it’s about time we ask ourselves why we still allow ourselves to act in anger in so many areas of our lives?
One thing you can know for sure is that if you are frustrated with your horse, they’re probably equally frustrated with you. The difference between the horse and the human is that the horse is always honest in reflecting, through their behaviour, what they’re thinking, seeing and feeling. Humans, on the other hand, have no humbleness in their frustrations – everything becomes the horse’s fault and “why won’t you just do what I tell you!”. It is this tendency to justification that sours relationships between man and beast. Where animals are willing and able to be honest with themselves and with you – you are more likely to blame them for your shortcomings in that moment.
So – I’ve covered the ‘problem’ quite a bit, now what is the solution? A handy tip I learned from my teacher is to always keep a smile in your belly. This means that no matter what you’re doing with your horse (or whatever part of your life), you’re doing it with the intention and inner presence of supporting your horse and being their friend. It means making sure that who you are with your horse is someone that they want to be friends and partners with, that if you get frustrated when your horse doesn’t understand you first remember to bring a smile back into your belly and look for different ways to help your horse understand.
I can’t count the number of times a play session with a horse turned sour because I let myself get frustrated – so I know how difficult it can be to keep a cool head and a light heart! What I can say is that when I do adjust my approach (who I am), I get significantly improved results where my horse is with me again and trying their best to understand and be my partner.
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.