Oftentimes I’m called in for a consultation on a difficult case, such as a horse with multiple issues that don’t resolve quickly, or issues that don’t respond to conventional pharmacological therapies. There are horses whose health challenges are like an onion: we have to peel back the layers to get to the root cause.
As a horse owner myself, I know that one of the many difficult aspects of horse care and management is wanting to fix things quickly. We want our horse as healthy as he or she was two days ago, or two weeks ago.
When we’re dealing with tendon or ligament injury, we know that time, rest, and various therapies are important for recovery. We know that connective tissue does not repair overnight. But GI tract issues in horses can send even the most experienced owner into high anxiety — partly because, for as much as veterinary medicine knows about the GI tract, there is so much more we don’t know.
Wanting to get our horses and dogs back to health can be stressful on the owner, particularly when various medicines and therapies have not worked as successfully as hoped. The animals pick up on their human’s anxiety, which elevates stress in the horse or dog. This chain reaction actually impedes the healing process biologically as well as emotionally and spiritually.
A tincture of time
There is an old horseman’s adage that no matter what the medical protocols, nothing beats a tincture of time. In our fast-paced world where information flies at the speed of light, and getting back into the show ring or training program is a priority, we sometimes forget that some of the best medicine for our animals is time.
The art of healing comes from nature, not from the physician. Therefore the physician must start from nature, with an open mind. -Paracelsus
The space for healing
Never underestimate the power of other animals to help in the healing process. When the barn is closed for the night, an injured horse on stall rest will rely on the other horses for support. We don’t let horses interact with each other in most stables, and yet in a herd setting there is a lot of support going on beyond mutual grooming.
My friend Lizzy Meyer invites her herd to help with a dog she is rehabbing. I watched an incredible video she made where the dog is introduced to water therapy in a large water trough, while the horses come over and lend their calm energies to the dog. Lizzy mentioned that the horse actually nuzzled the dog’s hind end to encourage him to use it in the water.
One of my boarding horses was recently diagnosed with sarcoma in the sinus cavity and a tumor in her jaw. The vets have given this 28-year-old mare approximately six months at best. Curiously, one of my chickens has now taken to nesting in the back of the mare’s stall. I have seen the mare position herself so that she’s standing with her head above the hen, absorbing, I believe, some form of chicken energy.
Our human anxiety can interrupt the space for healing. Horses and dogs can read worry on our faces and in our voices like a book. If you have the flu, and your husband or children or friends hover around you with great concern and anxiety, it will affect your body and your mind’s ability to become well. Yet if your husband, children, and friends make you laugh, make you smile, and let you rest, your ability to overcome the flu can improve exponentially.
The challenges of expectations
Sometimes our expectations for our animals’ healing actually get in the way. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought, with my horse Lionheart, that this injection or that drug would do the trick and it didn’t, even though I had expected a magic bullet! What I’ve discovered is that if I have no expectations about the outcome, it allows a space for more possibilities, for outcomes I couldn’t have imagined. The most poignant case in point was when I started to sprout seeds and make whole-food bars for Lionheart before he was scheduled for a neurectomy. I didn’t think the foods would do anything, but it made me feel better to be actively doing something for my lame horse. And much to my — and my vet’s — surprise, the horse improved. On my homemade, sprouted whole-food bars! He didn’t have to be nerved after all, and the little food experiment eventually became BioStar.
How many stories do we see of successful riders who had to lay up a horse for two years with an iffy prognosis, only to have the horse come back better than ever?
When we are invested in expectations, we limit the alchemy of healing to what we see it as being. Of course we want the medications, the supplements, the herbs, the therapies to have a positive effect on our horses and dogs. Yet I invite you to not be invested in the outcome or what the outcome looks like to you. Oftentimes when a protocol isn’t working as well as we hope, it opens the door for outside-the-box approaches. The horse or dog is teaching us to get out of the box.
These days it’s more difficult to be patient. Ours is not the culture of the 1950s. Instant gratification has, in a way, shortened our fuses, and if our animals are not healing as fast as our expectations, we can get cranky, irritable, and stressed. In so many ways, healing is no different from training, and for the same fundamental reason: every horse is an individual.
Sometimes we get so panicked that we throw as much stuff as we can at the horse to help him heal. I used to be the poster child for that approach! The horses have taught me that less is more. Not “less” as in quality, but as in only providing support logically, and giving the time necessary for the supplement or food or drug to work — or not work — as effectively as we hoped.
When the human is patient, the horse is provided with the space to heal. Like humans, horses have remarkable healing abilities, but drama and worry interfere with the healing process. Give yourself permission to give your animals time to heal.