I’m guessing that over the course of a day, you see horses in memes and in branding (Think “Whoa there!’ memes, Ford Mustangs, Budweiser Clydesdales). But how many of you see a real horse with your own eyes on a regular basis? How many of you got close? Did you get to press your face into its mane, smell its musky scent, feel its velvet coat?
In nearly every American town, there are vestiges of lives with horses: old carriage houses, hitching posts, and post roads where just a few generations ago, folks started and ended their days on horseback or on a horse-drawn wagon.
We don’t do that any more. As we urbanize and make technological advances, we’re gradually losing our connection to them.
Horses are big animals and have no business in the city. And city folks really don’t have much business with them.
Or do they?
It could be that horses will make a remarkable transition from beasts of burden to Beasts of Being.
More than any other animal, horses are uniquely qualified as simple, evidence-based de-stressors. If you’re looking for a way to cultivate some well-being, you may find it at the barn, not the gym or yoga studio.
While the horse population in the U.S. has shrunk from 20 million in the early 1900’s to around four million now, new equine positions are ready and waiting if we just pause to consider how they may help us in the 21st century. They are ripe for re-purpose: from ranch and farm taskmasters to quiet, effective therapists. And not just for vets, autistic kids and other special cases. Everyone can benefit. Read more about the research on equine-facilitated learning.
Nowadays, people like to fit animals into their lives. They like to give them human emotions, outfits, and routines. You and your pet can wear matching pajamas! You can put a pooch in your purse and tote it around like any other accessory.
It’s hard to do these things with horses. They are big and don’t take well to anthropomorphizing. That a horse is a horse, as they say, is precisely why they’re effective therapists. Spending time with a horse means stepping outside the human world and into the horse world. And that’s a good thing, a healthy, de-stressing time that engages the senses and takes you away from life’s immediate tensions.
To all non-horse owners, I challenge you:
Find a horse-y friend. Ask to hang out.
It could be the start of something great.
Earlier this month, we traveled to Livermore, Colorado, with Raechel Nelson and her 10-month old gelding, Gunner.
“To give him a chance to socialize with some other geldings and to give him some room to run around, stretch his legs and grow up without people in his face all the time,” said Nelson, who grew up in Livermore, a small northern Colorado town, and now practices dentistry in Utah. Read about Nelson’s DIY roundpen.
Over several months, Nelson laid a solid foundation that included leading, negotiating different environments (natural and manmade challenges) and generally learning to keep a cool head when around dogs, cars, and random craziness.
Did she think the year in Livermore would set him back?
“I don’t think so. I think a good foundation is easy to come back to. It carries through,” replied Nelson.
As it happened, we had proof in the pudding.
We brought Nelson’s older gelding, Skeet, to keep Gunner’s mom company and to give the purposeful Nelson a spring project. A sturdy, handsome, 14-year old roan (1,200 pounds), Skeeter hasn’t been ridden for years.
I thought he might have acquired some crummy habits. I thought there’d be drama. Not so.
“In my experience, you can come back years later. They still have manners and good fundamentals,” said Nelson, who has started several colts.
Steve Peters got in a first ride, first reviewing some ground work before swinging aboard.
Looking good, guys!
Our dear mustang and newest addition to the herd, Sackett, died on a dreadfully memorable day when Salt Lake’s airport and its major interstate were shut down due to a ferocious sand storm. Seventy-mile an hour winds whipped through the area, picking up sand, dirt, and making the skies as thick as a Maine fog.
I watched the storm through tears, knowing that these same granules of sand had led to the young gelding’s painful end.
My concern had begun a few days earlier. It was late in the day, a few hours after Steve had ridden Sackett with joy and without issue. When I tossed evening hay, he wasn’t his usual energetic self. I watched him eat, drink, and poop and considered it perhaps an off day.
The next morning, Sackett came more slowly up the hill. I took his temperature (101.2 degrees), listened for gut sounds (they
were minimal), and called the vet. We talked about his symptoms: lack of appetite and apparent discomfort. I gave him a half dose of Banamine. His slight fever declined, he moved more, and he ate some hay. He drank and pooped normally. I offered him a mash of bran, warm water, and molasses that he mostly ignored.
Later in the day, he and Wallace, the burro, had an adorable session of mutual wither scratching. I texted my vet: “Our boy seems to be doing a bit better.”
If only I’d known those bright hours were just blips on a radar soon to show a tragic and dramatic crash. Read more about colic here.
Sackett’s final 24 hours went like this:
His temperature climbed to 102.5 and he moved only with much encouragement. He drank and pooped some but was disinterested in hay or another bran mash. I placed cold, wet towels on him to try to keep down his fever.
Dr. Kate Schoenhals arrived that afternoon as his temperature rose to 104. She immediately performed a rectal exam and palpated a significant impaction. But it was still soft – with hydration, Banamine and time, it might pass. She inserted a tube and put at least a gallon of water into his stomach.
That evening, we transported him to the clinic for more blood work, intravenous therapy, and whatever else we could do for him. For twelve hours, his condition stayed relatively unchanged.
When I visited him in the morning, we walked dozens of circles around a small lawn. He moved more easily than the day before yet still with clear discomfort. With more medication on board, I remained hopeful and left for a quick errand.
Dr. Schoenhals called within the hour. His bloating (“abdominal distention”) was progressing by the moment; his condition was declining rapidly. I raced back.
Surgery, as we all agreed, was neither appropriate nor an option (even in straightforward cases, it’s hugely expensive and only sometimes successful.) We made the decision to euthanize immediately.
Sackett, the perky five year old who just days ago was confidently moving around his mares and lovingly receiving rubs from his burro buddy and from me, went down without a struggle.
Upon necropsy, we learned Sackett likely had been ingesting sand for months. The vet found about 20 pounds of sand, even rocks as big as kidney beans, in his gut. His digestive tract was thoroughly compromised with adhesions from his small intestine to his rectum. (Adhesions are the intestine’s response to injury, in this case, irritation from sand/rock ingestion.)
“By the time he told us, he’d already scraped up his intestines pretty good,” said Dr. Schoenhals. His angry, irritated intestines could have hosted a nasty infection, too.
He ruptured at the pelvic flexture, a common rupture site, where the colon takes a 180-degree turn and shrinks in size.
Gas-producing bacteria had escaped and filled his abdominal cavity. Thus, the bloating.
We’re trying to honor Sackett’s memory by learning from the nightmare and making changes to safe guard the health of his herdmates. Some lessons:
Like hoof abscesses, colics can fool you:
Education and experience taught me to look for these typical signs and symptoms of colic. Read more about colic here. Sackett showed some, but not others. His was an atypical sand colic. He never had diarrhea, for instance, a common red flag and something I treated Jolene for last year.
Horses have a wide range of stoicism:
Foals have a tendency for drama; you might see them down and flailing with the slightest pain. Mustangs, on the other hand, have a reputation for not showing their discomfort.
Could we be more pro-active?
Research shows I was doing the right things: feeding grass hay several times a day, offering ample turnout and easy access to water, minimizing grain intake (they were given alfalfa pellets and oats occasionally), and exercising and observing them daily.
Still, we could do more. Now, we have a dozen rubber mats and bunk feeders to get the hay off the ground. It won’t stop them from picking up sand as they nibble grass. But it will keep the hay cleaner.
We’ve also added psyllium to our regime. Psyllium (brand names include Sand Clear, Sand Free, Sand Rid) binds with sand and helps move it out of the gut. They will get a week’s worth of psyllium each month as a prophylactic.
I can’t bring Sackett back.
I can use the experience to become more sensitive and more knowledgeable. Despite the grief, hindsight, and self-doubt, I’m trying to see the silver lining. As my friend, Debbie Hight, reminded me: “Better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all.”
Thank you, Sackett, for your gift of life. Rest in peace.
While fans of pretty horses are lining up and drooling, we were shaking our heads at the newly posted auction pages of the Bureau of Land Management’s Wild Horse and Burro program. As much as we like to advocate on behalf of the BLM and their exhaustive efforts, we’re chagrined to find old and intact mustangs in the upcoming Sulphur horse auction.
It begins April 21 and is the result of an emergency roundup, conducted this winter in southern Utah. The agency rounded up 101 horses from the Sulphur Herd Management Area in response to growing horse/vehicular motor traffic issues. The horses were pushing out of their designated space and crossing Highway 21 where last year three horses were killed, likely by collisions with vehicles, according to a report in the Salt Lake Tribune.
The Sulphurs, prized for their coloring and supposed lineage to Spanish conquistadors, now await their fate at the Delta, UT, facility. They include 26- and 25 year-old stallions. Eight studs with an average age of 19 are on the auction block.
According to Gus Warr, head of the Utah’s Wild Horse and Burro program, Sulphur horses are some of the most popular. Private owners, breed organization representatives, and mustang sanctuaries are lining up, eager to raise their virtual paddles. High bids are expected, especially for the 26-year old grulla, who’s a stunner.
NickerNews and BestHorsePractices wonder if the welfare of these horses is being served. Our points:
- As any adopter can attest, even very young mustangs struggle as they adapt to domesticity. Horses can get hurt in transport, in captivity, and in training. It takes a long time and a patient, knowledgeable trainer/owner to succeed and not get hurt in the process. “The older the horse, the more challenging it gets,” said Warr.
In this setting, it’s hard to imagine a positive outcome for a 26-year old stud. Could he die or be injured in the process? Yes. Could he be used irresponsibly for breeding purposes? Yes. Could he hurt his handler? Yes. Warr said he hoped the senior grulla would go to a sanctuary. “That’d be perfect for him,” he said. But how would that work while he’s still intact? Most sanctuaries host mares and geldings only.
- Regardless of their pretty colors, the world does not need more mustangs. It needs less. Currently, some 50,000 sit unwanted in holding facilities. Read more here.
- Adopters’ fervent pursuit of Sulphur colors is naïve and misguided. As Delta facility’s manager, Heath Weber, told me last year, “You can get a colorful horse, but you may get a whole lot of crazy, too.” Even the BLM’s page on adoption considerations states: “Do not select a wild horse based on color or looks alone. Base your selection on your goals for the animal.”
What would the possible, attainable and responsible goals be for old, untouched mustang stallions?
- The BLM acknowledges stallions and older horses have much lower adoption success rates. The agency has shaped policy accordingly; usually it gelds incoming studs and offers only younger horses up for auction. Warr said this year’s older Sulphurs were not gelded because of their age (the procedure can cause more bleeding in older horses) and because of their breeding potential.
The agency seems to be abandoning good, evidence-based policy because of the public’s thirst for what’s pretty and popular. That makes fiscal sense. After all, every horse adopted means thousands of dollars deducted from the cost side of the balance sheet. But how much will the horses suffer while adopters learn “beauty is only skin deep”?
We’re sorry the potential outcome is not what’s best for these wild, old timers (in this case, that’d be a spacious long-term holding facility). We pray no one, horse nor human, gets hurt.
By the way, if you’re looking for real beauty, check out the success stories of the Extreme Mustang Makeover program. You’ll notice nearly all of the horses are downright drab compared to the Sulphurs. But their stories and transformations are drop dead gorgeous. Check out our own Emily Thomas Luciano and her gelding, Gus (below) Or watch Maddy Shambaugh and her bridleless gelding, Terk.
Check out our extensive reporting on the Mustang Crisis.