During one of the Summer Camp "inside lessons" I asked the group of medium-size girls "What do horses normally do all day?" The lesson was on how to tell if your horse is sick. Generally, if your horse is not doing any one of the normal things, it could be ill.
"Breathe!" was the first response.
"That's true," I replied, "but usually if your horse isn't breathing, it's not because he's sick. It's because he's dead. But good thinking!"
The answers began to come forth as the girls pictured their camp horses' daily routines.
"Poop!" Actually, what was said was "Use the restroom!", which isn't semantically correct. So the next camper chimed in with the updated version. Then the last one, catching on to the path we were headed on called out, "Pee!"
Yes, little grasshoppers, these are all correct.
An ill horse, or injured horse, is most likely going to refrain from normal, every day, horsey activities. It does help to know your horse well. At my barn, Gigi does not like to eat her breakfast grain. Raffles doesn't want to eat hay. Imy never drinks water in his stall. Rocket drools all over everything. Abbie uses her paddock like a home gym. Henry takes several naps every day. What is normal for these horses, may not be normal for any other horse.
Just recently, one of the horses went from drinking one tub of water over the course of 3 days, to drinking 4-5 tub-fulls in one day. After hundreds of dollars in blood and urine tests and multiple vet visits, still no one knows why. She is completely, perfectly healthy and happy otherwise. Weeks later, she is still drinking about 5 times the amount of water she usually drinks. Her electrolytes, organ functions, proteins and enzymes are all textbook. She isn't sweating more than normal, she isn't eating her salt block, her food and work load have not changed, her turnout is the same. Absolutely nothing has been found amiss, other than the water consumption. The answer may be revealed weeks from now, or she may return to normal water consumption as spontaneously as she deviated.
In case you are wondering, yes, I did check to see if her tub was leaking.
The point is, it helps to know your own particular horse's habits to know if anything has changed. The point also is, sometimes horses do weird things for no discernible reason.
If something seems askew, before calling the vet, take a moment to record current vital signs. The vet is going to ask for them and if you haven't checked, you will feel very silly.
Vital signs include, body temperature, pulse, respiratory rate, capillary refill time and in the case of possible colic, gut sounds. It is handy to have a chart with the normal values printed on it and either displayed in a prominent place or kept with the medical kit because in a time of emergency not everyone can be clear headed enough to recall all the correct numbers.
For some of us, recalling numbers is difficult even at the best of times.
In order to determine vital signs you need a thermometer (and a little Vaseline or lube), a watch, and a stethoscope. If available, a pen and paper to record numbers, and a second person to hold a horse or tell time is nice too.
Keeping a horse still long enough to determine respiratory rate and pulse can be a challenge. It's easiest to time them for 15 seconds then multiply by 4 to get a per minute number. It may be helpful to have a calculator on hand to do this.
For some of us, doing math is difficult even at the best of times.
Knowing your horse, knowing what is normal for normal horses, and knowing the vet's telephone number are resources you will need to properly care for a horse. Even if something is normal for your horse, it could still indicate a problem. Just because a horse always coughs when he eats, or usually has runny manure does not mean it's okay. There could be a reason for it that can be remedied.
If something does seem wrong, observe, record, and call the vet.
Oh yeah - and breathe.
Monday, June 9, 2014
*Due to a lovely opportunity to have my writing published in the local newspaper, I have badly neglected my little blog. However, like a fickle girlfriend, now that the more glamorous option seems to have run its course I have returned to "Ole Reliable". Please continue to follow, I will continue to write (if a little sporadically) and feel free to share. Thank you for your loyalty, it was greater than mine.*
Although my livelihood depends on horses; teaching people to ride them, training them and boarding them, when people me if they should buy a horse I nearly always answer, “No.”. Horse ownership is not for the faint of heart, small of bank account or possessor of little knowledge.
Should someone take riding lessons? Definitely. Should an experienced rider consider leasing a horse? Probably. It’s my personal opinion that buying a horse should be akin to obtaining a driver's license. There should be classes, a required number of hours of practice and a test with the possible addition of a background check and mental capacity testing.
These restrictions would reduce the number of horses resold when they didn’t work out or the owner lost interest. There are adoption facilities filled to the rafters with horses that people could no longer afford and horses that were mistreated or neglected by ignorant owners. I suspect that most of those horses would not be there if the previous owners had done more research before buying a horse.
The relationship you can develop with a horse of your own is like no other. The horse is completely dependant on you for survival but at the same time, can take you out if it feels you are not fulfilling that obligation. Meaning, a horse needs a leader that it trusts and respects and if it doesn’t have that trust and respect it will set about saving its own skin. That’s when people get hurt and horses are labeled “bad”.
Not only can a horse’s compliance deteriorate but it’s health will rapidly decline due to mishandling. The declaration “healthy as a horse” is a precarious one at best. Horses have delicate digestive systems and a propensity for finding something to poke in their eyes, twist a leg on or get caught in. There is a horse I know who has a big ugly scar on one leg from getting tangled in a boat trailer. First of all, horses should not have access to boat trailers, and second, despite having many other choices of places it could be, the horse ended up with a leg caught in a boat trailer. How or why is of no consequence. It is a horse. There was an opportunity.
The worst mistake, by a landslide, is buying a young horse for a young person so they can “grow and learn together.” If ever existed a recipe for disaster, that one is top of the list. Sometimes the pairing works out - but rarely. If it does work, it’s usually due to the assistance of professionals and miracles.
Somebody in the relationship needs to know what to do, so a young horse with an experienced owner or an inexperienced owner with an aged been there, done that horse generally work out fine. Regardless of horse or rider education levels, there should be a professional trainer or instructor involved. Even riders who compete in the Olympic games have coaches. No one is immune from needing help.
My plan is not to (entirely) discourage everyone from ever owning a horse, but to forewarn and educate those who are ready to make the commitment. If you do decide to buy a horse, take a professional along during trials, take lessons, read books, watch videos, ask questions, consult veterinarians and farriers.
Horse ownership can be fulfilling and rewarding if you decide to make the commitment. Your relationship with your horse can enrich your life as you learn to be aware of your body language, stay calm in intense situations and exhibit leadership. Buck Brannaman, a world-renowned horseman and author, says that your horse is a mirror to your soul, and to what is going on in your life. Which means you may not always like what you see, but that doesn’t mean you throw away the mirror and go out and get a new one. A horse can teach you to be a better person.
Maybe my first reaction is hasty. Maybe instead of saying, “No.”, when people ask me if they should get a horse, I should say “Not yet.” I would say, take some time to educate yourself and then examine your motives. If, after some lessons and studying, your reason for owning a horse has gone beyond “Because they’re so pretty!”, then certainly you can prepare for that life-altering experience.