When I first started learning about horsemanship I got myself quite set in thinking that there was only one way to work with horses, and that was the right way. My way. The only way. All other methods / approaches were WRONG. I felt superior in my knowing that my way was the only and best way ever in the world. Ever.
Thankfully I started seeing things differently at some point. It started with me allowing myself to consider the possibility that maybe there were other ways to go about this, and that maybe some of those ways might be more effective, or even more pleasant. I don’t recall that there was a specific trigger or event that precipitated my change of perception, but what I do recall is that the change started with my willingness to consider things outside of my rigid box of opinions.
I find it interesting looking back now, it’s like I had locked myself into this one way of seeing horsemanship, and I believed so strongly that it was the best way – but I hadn’t even looked into different ways, so my belief was totally unsupported. That’s the funny thing about some of the things we believe, it’s like we become lost in the righteousness of our belief that we will not even look at anything else. In some areas of life this kind of behaviour may not have a big effect on anyone’s life, but when it comes to horsemanship, beliefs like these can and do affect the lives of our horses.
Let me take an extreme example of what some trainers believe you must do to the Tennessee Walking Horse – “soring” or putting huge blocks on their hooves to force them to pick their legs up higher and “step up” nicely. To most of us, that is a completely unacceptable practice – but to the people who are doing it, they will (likely) believe that it is the best method to achieve their desired outcome. This of course can be seen in all areas of life – and it’s up to us to recognise that our action can and do effect the lives and happiness of others.
I may not have done things like in the example above, but I did try to force my ways onto my horse, even when he clearly was not understanding or enjoying what we were doing. I told myself that he would learn in time, I just had to keep trying. Am I ashamed of some of the things I did? Yes. Will I hold my mistakes against myself? No. I am learning from my mistakes and making sure that I am listening to my horse. Thankfully our horses are very forgiving, probably more than we deserve. We always have the opportunity to change, and our horses will change with us if we help them.
I have a principle I live by now, not only with my horsemanship but in all areas of my life: Investigate all things and keep what’s good. Even in those methods or practices that I generally don’t agree with I may find just one kernel of something good that I can test in my own life. And yes, I won’t simply see something that looks cool and then make it my motto in life – I will take the time to test it and see for myself how well it works, where it works, for which horse it works. Which brings me to an important point: not every exercise will work for every horse, and it’s up to us to hear when our horses tell us that something isn’t working, and our responsibility to change it.
When I first started learning about horsemanship with my first horse, I did not ever want to do anything that may have potentially led to him (the horse) not liking me. I wanted to love him and I wanted him to love me. What this manifested in my behaviour with him, however, created a relationship dynamic that I did not want.
I started with learning the basics of how to move a horse’s feet from the ground. I learned how to move the hindquarters, the forequarters, move the whole horse forwards and backwards and in a circle around me. Within who I was when I was practicing these things, however, was timid, careful, shy, wanting to avoid confrontation, wanting to be kind and gentle. What this create most of the time, was a horse that did not respond to my aides. I’d ask him to move his feet, and sometimes he did, but sometimes he didn’t. This in turn led to me feeling even less capable, and more fearful of trying to build a relationship with a horse that didn’t like or respect me.
I had the romanticised idea that I could build a good relationship and communication with my horse just by spending time with him, scratching his back under a tree. I would then be able to ride off into the distance and never ever fall off. Also be in a perfect classical dressage carriage. Yeah right.
It took time, quite a lot of time if I look back now, for me to change who I was with my horse. I understood on an intellectual level that his behaviour was reflecting who I was, but I couldn’t yet translate that into understanding what it was I needed to change. I went through periods of just wanting to give up, moments of trying to overcompensate and then behaving in a way that I regretted later, and moments of trying to find the answer everywhere but the most obvious place: me.
There was no one big “Aha!” moment that led to me finally realising that I had to take a serious look at what I was living inside myself that my horse was so kindly showing me. I started making small changes at first, noticing small moments where I had shifted inside myself to be more directive. One example was when my horse, Fatty, bullied one of our little ponies, I immediately backed him up without a halter or any other equipment (and without touching him) – I held him simply with my focus and he backed right up in a straight line – and didn’t immediately try to run off. In that moment I glimpsed what I was capable of – not that that moment was representative of the relationship as a whole that I wanted to develop – it was simply a moment of stepping out of my scared little inner mouse and into my strong independent woman self.
Moral of the story: Our behaviour and body language is so obvious to our equine friends – they read us so easily. If we are insecure, that is what our horses see: our uncertainty, our hazy intentions. How can we expect a horse, that is a prey animal and has evolved over time to stay alive in a dangerous world, to respect us when we are frightened little mice who don’t want to step on anyone’s toes? Horsemanship is about being a leader and friend to our horses – we cannot be leaders if we are so caught up in trying to be their friends that we are terrified of actually leading. There is a balance in how we can develop our relationships with our horses, and the ingredients include both friendship and leadership.
Have you ever heard the saying that your horse is your mirror – that they reflect back to you what your issues, hang-ups, weaknesses, strengths and more are? If you haven’t heard that saying before, take a moment to open yourself up to a different way of seeing your horse.
What I mean when I say that your horse is a mirror is that your horse will adjust their behaviour according to who you are – meaning your body language, intentions, actions, and so on. So if you have an issue with authority, lets say you lack confidence in taking up a leadership role, then your horse will see that through your behaviour, and (most likely) take on a role of authority. One thing that we must remember with horses is that they are herd animals and they enjoy knowing who’s the leader – this is what kept their species alive all these years – there is always a clear hierarchy and the leader is always on the lookout for danger (and water, better grazing, etc). So if we shy away from being leaders, our horses will step into that role to make sure that they will stay safe. Yes, it’s not always about survival – there will be other elements involved. Sometimes horses just like being the leader and will challenge you for that role.
Another example is when we are uncertain of ourselves, our horses will act similarly, showing anxiety, confusion, uncertainty – and this can often manifest in different ways, such as a horse refusing to move, or a horse bolting.
I think the greatest thing about our horses is that they force us to see ourselves – though often we will remain obstinately ignorant for as long as possible (and our horse pays the price). I have had days where I blamed everything on my horse, I felt like he was just deliberately being an idiot, or being mean – those days usually did not end well. I’d put my horse in the paddock and walk away feeling yucky inside, often ashamed of myself. Those were the days that I would get angry with my horse and stick with that anger, instead of taking a step back within myself to ask why I was angry, and what the hell was really going on with ME that my horse was behaving in that way.
Now I’m not saying that horses have absolutely no sense of self, that it’s only ever about us – but what I am saying is that we should always, always, always check ourselves first before we look to the horse as the cause. Yes, sometimes our horses will have a bad day. Yes, sometimes our horses will feel fresh. But even on these days it’s up to US to help them to find their centre again, to come back to themselves (and that doesn’t always work). This is part of why I will never commit to any particular plan when I bring my horse into the arena – I want to see where he is at in that moment and work with that.
Unfortunately, it is quite easy for us to kid ourselves into always thinking that there must be something wrong with our horse, or that they must be behaving badly just because they feel like it. It becomes even easier when we surround ourselves with other people who do the same. I have found that generally it is those people who are not well educated on horse behaviour who will do the most harm to a horse out of ignorance – like fighting with the horse to force the horse to do something (when maybe the horse just doesn’t know what the hell is going on). I have also observed that talking openly about making changes to how we handle horses is not something that many people are comfortable doing, especially in the presence of others who have a limited understanding of horse behaviour and psyche. It’s similar to how we tend to not want to get involved with an abusive family situation – we tell ourselves that it’s not our business, that there’s nothing we can do anyway.
Sure, sometimes there isn’t much we can do to change how someone else works with their horse, but sometimes there is something we can do – and that something can make a difference to that horse. I find that the most important thing in these situations is to approach someone as their equal – no judgement, no anger, no irritation – those emotions will more likely just add fuel to the fire (or start a fire). It is in these moments that we must practice an absolute calm and clarity within ourselves, doing so will create the space for a much better outcome than going in with guns blazing.
Having said that, we must practice that same humility with ourselves – we must at all times be willing to reflect on ourselves, to look at our own behaviour – because sometimes, we are the ones who have been living in ignorance.
Well, your horse is listening, you just don’t know how to speak yet – at least not in the way that horses speak.
While we are very well developed in our ability to communicate verbally (compared to horses at least) we are not so great at things like being aware of our body language, and being able to effectively convey our desired meanings to others.
I often see people complaining that their horse is not listening, is not following the aides given to them, or is even being a little nutty. Interestingly enough though, when I watch how they are trying to communicate with their horse, I am not at all surprised that the horse is just plain confused. Horses are forgiving creatures, we underestimate just how hard they try to make us happy (often for the simple reason to avoid conflict). It is difficult though for the horse to give us what we want when we are giving mixed signals. Our arms say one thing, our posture says another, the pressure we’re applying to the horse says yet another and our intention is something completely different.
Part of what is lacking is, yes, the understanding of how horses communicate and how to effectively convey what we want within our body language. But within this we must consider that part of the puzzle is US – who we are. What is it that stops us from reflecting on the question “Why won’t my horse listen?” – why do we so often blame the horse and refuse to consider that we are the ones who need to adjust our approach so that we can HELP our horses understand what it is that we are wanting to communicate.
It is so common to see people looking for new and improved ways to force their horse to do something, often by using pain. Sadly, it is in these situations that we will see the development of behavioural issues in a horse, as well as the development of health issues (injuries due to the horse not being properly physically prepared on all levels for the demands placed on them; colic). Even then, we often refuse to look at ourselves – we look for ways to try fix the issues that crop up – but without addressing the cause of the issues, they will, naturally, continue to reoccur.
I am sure you can agree with me, for the sake of your horse, when I say that we are rather proud and stubborn creatures. We are too proud to look in the mirror at how WE have contributed to creating a bad situation, and we will stubbornly continue to refuse to do so until something forces us to look – and that something is seldom pleasant.
So what will it take for us to take a long, hard look in the mirror without waiting for some awful event (where the horse usually pays the price for our obstinance)? We are the ones who have to be better, we are the ones who have the responsibility to ensure that we are doing the best we possibly can for our horses – not the other way around. When we make the choice to take responsibility for another living being – a being that is so very different from us – the onus of responsibility rests upon our shoulders, and only upon ours. It is unfair to burden our horses with the expectation that they will somehow adapt themselves to suit our limited way of communicating. We are the ones with the ability to adapt ourselves. We are the ones who want to ride horses. We are the ones who are removing horses from their natural states and asking them to perform for us. The least we can do for them is make the effort to understand exactly how they communicate and ensure that our efforts to communicate with them are as easy as possible for them to understand.
There is so much material available – my suggestion is to look for material where the author loves what they do, loves horses and focuses on bringing out the best in their horses – and by that I mean where they help their horses to have the best time possible.
One could argue that every interaction that takes place in life is an exchange of pressures – giving pressure, giving into pressure, avoiding pressure, and pushing against pressure. Horses respond to pressure in those same ways, depending on what they know, what they’ve lived and the nature of who they are as an individual.
The general rule of thumb is that applying too much pressure to a horse will lead them either to habitually avoid pressure or push against it. A horse that avoids pressure will manifest this behaviour in various ways: avoiding contact, shying away from you or your equipment (ever meet a horse that was terrified of sticks/whips?), and even have a tendency to rush or bolt (trying to escape the pressure by outdistancing itself from it). On the other hand, when a horse learns to push against pressure, you’ll most likely start calling them “stubborn” or “grumpy” – they’re heavy off the leg, lean on the bit, don’t have brakes, and so on.
Obviously no one wants a horse that either avoids pressure or pushes against it – so how do you find the middle ground to help the horse become soft, light and responsive to your aides?
Some horses may be more difficult than others, some may have been taught by people, either deliberately or inadvertently, to push against or avoid pressure, but the essence of helping a horse to develop lightness, responsiveness and softness is the same. There are many different tools or methods that can be applied, which I shall not go into, for now I’ll focus simply on the principles behind developing a healthy relationship with pressure in your horse (and, more importantly, in yourself).
Most of us humans lack a certain level of physical awareness – awareness of our surroundings, our body language, posture, and even touch. Horses, on the other hand, could arguably be labelled as hyper-aware. They use body language as a primary point of communication amongst not only themselves, but with every living thing (yes, that includes us). They can feel a fly landing on them, and are always keeping alert of happenings in their environment (they are, after all, prey animals). The combination of the comparatively insensitive human and the hyper-sensitive horse often leads to some undesirable behaviour in the horse – but to be fair, it’s almost always our fault.
As I mentioned above, there are many different tools and methods available in horsemanship. I am of the opinion that there is no one tool, method or trick that will work the same for any and all horses. I feel that the more tools, knowledge and diversity you have in your “toolbox”, the more horses you will be able to help. Different horses need different approaches, so keep an open mind – and if things are not going well, DON’T BLAME THE HORSE! It’s probably your fault. Yes, I said it and I meant it.
OK let’s get down to business. Often, we try to push and bully a horse into submission. We try to implement the shortest route that we can see from point A to point B – but that seldom works out to be in the best interest of the horse. We must be humble and recognise that the horse is showing us the truth of what we are actually saying (through what we are doing – ie posture, body language, touch, etc). If we do not practice awareness of our physical presence and body language, we will most likely find that our horse continues to do things that we are not asking (or they overcompensate or are “stubborn”). We are, in other words, always exerting some form of pressure, either through body language or touch – this is what the horse will respond to. It follows naturally that if we are not aware of what our body is saying, we will not be able to follow the same conversation that our horse is following.
That, I would say, describes my first and most important principle: the horse is always honest and showing us who WE are. The second principle has to do more with lightness. Lightness is the goal – and to get there we must start there. I start all of my work with any horse at the lightest possible “ask” – meaning I see how softly I can execute an aide before the horse responds. Within this I am giving the horse the opportunity to be equally light. Often with a new horse one may start with lightness, yet may have to progressively increase the intensity of the ask until the horse responds. Within this, releasing pressure is the most important part – as soon as the horse responds (and in the beginning, I will reward the tiniest effort on the part of the horse!). This means that we must practice releasing the tension in our bodies faster and faster. If you are applying pressure with a hand, that hand must be lightning quick to release the pressure once the horse responds. The combination of starting your asks lightly and releasing the pressure immediately will gradually develop a greater level of softness, lightness and responsiveness in your horse.
I’ll go up to here. Please feel free to contact me with any questions or blog requests. Enjoy!
When I first got into contact with horses on a daily basis, I was already walking a process of Self-Investigation – analysing who I am and where I can improve myself to make my daily life and living more effective and enjoyable. For me, spending time with horses was a ‘hobby’, something I did for fun to ‘take my mind off things’. Yet, soon enough, it became very clear that working with horses and spending time with them was not the kind of ‘break’ I was looking for. Quite the opposite happened actually. My buttons were continuously being pushed and no matter how much I just wanted to ‘relax’ and enjoy myself around the horses and specifically the horse I ended up having as my companion, I found myself in an almost constant state of inner conflict. I really wanted to get to know my horse and have a fun relationship, but he was bullying me and I ended up feeling anxious just being around him. When I had first met him at the farm he was at before coming to live with us, he seemed like a sweet and grounded horse. But when it came to daily interaction, a whole new dynamic came to the surface. In the first few weeks, I’d need to keep his halter on in the stable while grooming him because he was quite irritable and was all too happy to bite and nip to express his opinions of whatever I was doing. With the assistance of others, I was able to set boundaries and stabilise myself through addressing my fear-based relationship with him.
When I was a child, I got my share of beatings which left a very deep impression on me and affected my entire life (and is something I am still working through). Now, having this BIG animal with massive strength and power around me, scared me to no end. Just seeing him, his grumpy expression and the intensity of his movements – whether directed towards me or not – would trigger all sorts of memories and bring me back to my childhood scared and insecure self. When I was a child, all I could do to cope with the situation was to draw back inside myself and wait it out in a state of total fear and petrification.
My experience of myself around my horse was absolutely awful. I had a choice to make: I could either stop participating with horses, or I could change and empower myself – teach and give myself the tools I did not have as a child, to find a constructive way to work with another being who is angry and expresses it physically – without getting hurt and diminishing myself in the process.
This has proven to be a very challenging task. Every fibre of my being has been set up, since childhood, to avoid conflict at any and all costs, especially situations where things could get physical. It was very difficult to give up my primary coping mechanism I had developed in conflict situations. I had to constantly remind myself that I was no longer a child and powerless – I was an adult now and I did not have to be a victim of the situation. I was very scared to change, because all I knew was that ‘avoidance’ would keep me safe. So every day I made the deliberate effort to change, to be present, here and work with my horse regardless of the anxiety inside me. I was shown to take notice of my posture and body language, as any emotional instability would translate into a particular body posture, which would draw out a particular response from the horse. Horses are herd animals as well as prey animals, their survival and well-being depends on effective leadership, someone who knows what they are doing. If you are scared, fearful, and go into states of self-diminishment – it is logical to the horse to get rid of you or at least to make sure that you ‘know your place’ in the hierarchy, with all the consequences that come with it.
Not only are horses very perceptive of the state of being of their fellow herd members, they are also perceptive of the state of being of any human or animal who comes into their environment. In the wild, a predator who’s just had a nice meal and is fully satisfied can stroll past a herd of horses and the horses will peacefully graze on because they already had picked up on this state of being from miles away. If that same animal however had approached them in a state of hunting, they would have run off the moment they noticed the presence of the predator. Much of their behaviour is determined by ‘where everyone else is’. It became very clear that as I changed, my horse would change too. So it happened that my horse became the mirror reflection of me and my state of being – challenging me, pushing me, checking where I am at and responding accordingly.
Unfortunately, many people do not consider this aspect when working with a horse, or any other animal for that matter. If a horse is being unruly, then more control and force is used. Someone in my position can easily move from being a victim to being a perpetrator – doing unto the horse exactly what was done unto me. Horses, in their kind and forgiving nature, will put up with this behaviour until they have either had enough (at which point they get sold or sent to the slaughter house) or until they collapse under physical and/or emotional strain.
To have a willing, trusting and cooperative relationship with your horse, Self-Mastery is absolutely essential. This means constant evaluation and assessment of yourself and your horse. Never assume that your horse is simply being an ‘irrational animal’. These great creatures are very advanced in processing information from their environments – to call them stupid would be a deflection of our own inability to see beyond our own limited perspectives.
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.