• Sue Steiner

On the Fringe


Subtle Signs of Pulling Away from the Herd

I love observing herd dynamics.  I find it fascinating how the horses interact and now that I am working as an ‘equine specialist’ in equine-assisted therapy sessions it is also part of my job!  How cool is that?  

First thing I do when I wake up:  

1. Look at the sun rise.  I love that 99.9% of the time it is beautiful!  I am reminded of the glory in God’s       creation each and every day! 

2.  If my horses are turned out  I looked to see where and what they are doing in the pasture.  

I have an appy gelding who has had on again and off again lameness.  We were on the upswing and then had a setback and now am on the upswing again.  Yes, I know that is the nature of ‘on again, off again’ but I am always hopeful the on again will just continue!   I got this horse from an auction a couple years ago and pretty much saved him from the meat market.  He is a gorgeous 16 + hands red appy with a big white blanket.  He also had terrible under run heels and long long toes when I got him.  He had deeply embedded thrush that has been SO persistent!!  The infection got into the sensitive part of his foot and has been extremely difficult to get completely rid of in spite of meticulous hoof picking,  clean stalls, dry turn out etc.  He gets lots of turn out to keep him moving in a nice, large grassy pasture on a him so he is not living in mud.   I have done everything I can do besides move him into my living room!  I get kind of OCD ish about him but anyways it is what it is and we are plowing thru until he is 100% sound!  

One of the things that horses can do when slightly ‘off’ or even ore so when ill is not stay up with the herd.  In the wild these would be the ones who would get eaten obviously so I am sure the horse feels extra vulnerable.  I also know horses tend to NOT like to let on they are not well for this very reason.  My appy in particular is a very stoic horse.  I have to watch him very carefully for the slightest signs of pain so I can get on top of what is probably another flare up of this stubborn thrush.  

 Other signs of chronic (non acute or sudden onset) pain I see in horses are the look in their eye which is hard to document or describe but when you see your horses day in and day out and KNOW them you can see it.  I always feel weird telling the vet a series of vague symptoms- one of which is they have a concerned look in their eye.  But I have caught illnesses that way that the horse was doing a pretty good job of covering up otherwise.  Another is either scrunched nostrils or flared nostrils.  In my opinion when it gets to this point the pain is more severe.   Listlessness, restlessness, grouchiness can also be indications of discomfort and pain.  

Here is a list of chronic pain symptoms in horses I found on this site:

Horses Possible behavioral signs of pain in horses may include but are not limited to the following


  1. Abnormal postures:

  2. Restlessness

  3. Agitation

  4. rigid stance

  5. head pressing

  6. feet held abnormally under the abdomen

  7. limbs held forward one another or in abnormal positions (weight rocked back on heel or forward on toe)

  8. fixed board like stance with immobility,

  9. splinting;

  10. lowered head or neck

  11. inability to move head and neck

  12. fixed position of head, neck and limbs

  13. inability or unwillingness to move tail

  14. tail clamped to body

  15. ears held in abnormal positions

  16. weight shifting from one limb to another

  17. getting up and down frequently

  18. frequent changes in recumbency when recumbent

  19. ear position immobile, back or flattened

  20. dorsal recumbency (foals)

  21. Abnormal gaits or movements:

  22. Restlessness

  23. reluctance to be handled

  24. flared nostrils

  25. muscle tremors

  26. head bobs on movement during trot

  27. walking in circles

  28. sweating at rest or sweating excessively during exercise

  29. rolling, thrashing, kicking or biting at body

  30. constant head, lip, eyelid, tongue or swallowing movements

  31. frequent excitement or aggression

  32. head shaking

  33. stomping

  34. tail swishing

  35. playing in the water vs. drinking

  36. lip curling

  37. head tilting

  38. attempts to urinate without production

  39. uncontrolled anxiety

  40. restlessness

  41. escape attempts

  42. straining to urinate or defecate

  43. Vocalizations:

  44. whinnying frequently

  45. “calling” to other horses

  46. Snorting

  47. Forced expiratory noises

  48. Miscellaneous:

  49. profuse sweating (often foamy) in all or one area of body

  50. dilated pupils

  51. glassy eyes

  52. wide eyed look

  53. anxious appearance

  54. groaning or moaning

  55. forced expirations

  56. increased sleeping time

  57. non response to caretakers or normal stimuli

  58. eyes appear dull, listless, and distant

  59. Appetite:

  60. feeding with unexplained interruption

  61. playing in food

  62. bruxism

  63. food held in mouth uneaten

  64. decreased eating or drinking

  65. off schedule eating or drinking

  66. non finished meals

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

It always comes back to knowing your horse and being a good observer.  

I tend to find ways in which horses tell us something about ourselves too.  One of the things that came to mind as I watched whether my appy was with the herd or holding back, how we as people tend to withdraw also when we are feeling pain.  Sometimes the pain is physical and sometimes emotional.  Either way it is important for us to maintain connections during those times.  If the pain is physical and you need to restrict your activities that some times is just a logistics problem.  But when the pain is emotional and you withdraw you can wind up getting isolated from your support system at the time you need it the most.   If that’s the case a way to take good care of yourself during those times is to create a smaller herd possibly of understanding friends that you can be open with.  Finding someone you don’t need to hide your pain from is so important!  Seek counseling.  Write in a journal and get it out so you can interact in your social circles.  Stay physically active.  Exercise releases endorphins that elevate mood.   Eat right and get enough sleep.  Look at the sunrise and find ways to incorporate beauty and God into your life.  This will help you to see a bigger picture to your situation.   Learn to shrug off what is not yours to hold– control over others, responsibility that is not yours, other people’s emotions and reactions.   Find ways to express your feelings rather than stuff them.  Know that although feelings can be very painful,  feelings and emotions do change.  Talk to someone about it.  Finds ways to make baby steps even in a new direction.  One step will build on another.  You do not have to be alone in your pain.  

I find my horses to be a wonderful calming presence in my life.  They make me exercise and get fresh air when I would not otherwise.  I feel calmer and happy around them.  They are beautiful to look at and interesting.  They provide us with a wealth of information too on how we can learn to be more in tune with ourselves, the environment and people around us.  

One of the best ways we can take care of ourselves is to seek counseling and to talk to your doctor if you are feeling emotional pain and you don’t feel like you are making progress or have options.   

One of the things I find amazing about horses is during this whole painful process of getting my appy comfortable and sound I had to cause pain to relieve it.  That kind of sucked but ~I~ knew to get him better would be a process and if we stuck to it and kept at it he would do better.  I could of chosen to not go thru the process because I didn’t want to face the pain but he would not of gotten better.  I got him sound last summer.  We will do it again even though he doesn’t know the process and doesn’t know the painful part of the process is necessary.  He knew it hurt and in spite of that he allowed me to keep working on his feet.  This 1000 lb animal, in pain, tolerated more pain so I could make him better.  I am learning in the painful times in my life, there is a process to better understanding and a better outcome– even if in the process I can not see it.  The sun WILL come out again.  

Take care and happy trails!

Sue

#depression #herddynamics #EAP #equineassistedpsychotherapy #horsesandhealing #pain #copingskills #EAL #equineassistedlearning

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