Might he be in pain?

So last week I mentioned that I was concerned that Dax’s recent behaviour could possibly have been triggered by pain.  I therefore booked him in for a session with Helen Jacks-Hewett the McTimoney and Sports Massage therapist.  She came out to the yard on 27 July and gave Dax a thorough examination.

We also had a fun time speculating on his heritage!  Helen thought that his eyes looked quite Appaloosa as there is some white visible around his iris, as you can just about see in this photo:

She wondered if he might actually develop some spots as he grows older!  She also thought that his temperament could indicate some Welsh Section D.

Regarding her assessment she wrote in her report:

No misalignments located in spine or pelvic joints, and no areas of muscle asymmetry or soreness noted so on the whole there doesn’t appear to be any significant underlying musculoskeletal problems. His poll was a little tight predominantly on the left side, it is possible his tendency to head twirl may cause this tension, or his general underlying level of anxiety.

Small areas of scar tissue from previous/old injuries noted in the right ascending pectoral and the right gracilis muscles which may indicate he has had some prior trauma.

Baited core activation ‘carrot stretches’ will help to strengthen his core muscles

She then went on to say:

His behaviour seems typical for a hand raised foal, and shows a lot of foal like tendencies even though he is 6 years old.

There is a really sweet natured clever horse in there who will hopefully continue to learn and develop given the right herd conditions and handling techniques.

It was such good news to hear that he doesn’t appear to have any areas of pain and that, overall, his conformation is pretty good.  Also, I now have Helen’s suggestions on things that I can do to improve his core strength and balance, which hopefully will make him more comfortable in himself.  We’ve now been practising carrot stretches, particularly the low ones, and turning him in small circles.  He’s a clever boy and has picked this up quickly.  The only issue is that, as Helen mentioned, he is rather foal-like in some of his behaviours and shows traits common to horses that have been hand reared – in this case, getting over excited when offered food by hand and becoming ‘snatchy’.  He’s getting better though, as he’s learning that he always gets his reward!

Another area that needed work, and where I was hoping Helen’s suggestions would help, was in having his feet handled.  In fact it was our wonderful trimmer Caroline Andresen of Hoofing Marvellous who first suggested Helen, when she noticed that there is a slight twist to Dax’s lower right foreleg, and thought that this might be why he is reluctant to lift his front feet.

I’m sure that building his core strength and stability will make him more comfortable when having to stand on just 3 feet to have his hooves picked or trimmed and also I want to help him realise that he is safe to give us a foot for attention.  My lovely, supportive husband has been helping me with this, holding Dax, reassuring him and rewarding him when he allows us to gently lift a foot.

Caroline noticed a big difference in her most recent trim, compared to the previous one.  Dax was much more chilled!  We could also see how his feet are changing since his move to Bristol.  I find it fascinating how you can see so much in a horse’s foot!  It sort of gives you a wellbeing history for the previous 9-12 months.  In the last trim, Dax’s feet were brittle – a reflection of whatever was happening towards the end of last year.  Pieces were breaking off again this time, which shows how his feet are responding to the stresses placed on them by his weight and movement.  There is some flaring, which is a further indicator of this, and of what’s going on inside his hoof capsule.  (You can read more about hoof health in my earlier post and in this article from my website.)

So that was step one in supporting Dax to be a happier and more balanced horse, but what about the other questions I was facing?

More about that next week!

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The Beast within

Those of you who’ve been following this blog – or even who’ve just read last week’s post – will be wondering what I meant by Dax’s ‘darker side’.  Let me start by saying that overall this boy is very sweet and he has a cheeky, playful, intelligent character, but as the weeks went by following his arrival here in Bristol he would occasionally show a ‘grumpier’ side, where he would suddenly turn round and threaten to nip.  This was usually more of a threat than anything else as he rarely made contact, let alone actually bite, but it made me wonder about what was going on inside his handsome head.

Then one day, one of the others at the yard, and her partner, were putting all the horses back out after we’d been putting up a track on the land.  (I’d had to leave a little before the work was finished and so I wasn’t there to help with the turnout.)  Dax knows these people well as he sees them every day and up to this point there had never been a problem.  But that night, something was different.

As the horses went down the lane and out into the field, Dax got separated from the others, so my friend went to gently steer him back towards the herd.  This guy is one of the nicest, quietest and most gentle guys I know, which made what happened next all the more upsetting when I heard about it later.  Dax suddenly spun round, ears flat against his head, teeth bared and started to charge.  Only the quick reactions of both people saved this lovely man from being attacked.

We have no idea what prompted this sudden – and frightening – shift, but it alerted us to the fact that this horse’s behaviour can suddenly switch.  To me, it showed that he is still carrying scars from his past.  I didn’t know what to do for the best.  People were advising me to send him back and my husband was afraid for my safety as, I have to admit, was I.  But at the same time I was worried for Dax.  I don’t want him to be labelled as ‘The Dangerous Horse’ because I think that’s often a self-fulfilling prophecy, causing fear in everyone and triggering the horse further.

I believe that our shadow side comes from our fears.  I therefore think that this sudden outburst from Dax came from fear, perhaps a triggered memory from his past.  We don’t have much detail about his early life.  The stories are sketchy and uncertain but it seems that he was taken from his mother at 1 month of age and left to starve.  There was also a rumour of him being attacked with a hammer…

I also realised that it brought up my fear when I heard about what happened, and that I was bringing this feeling into our relationship and interactions.  This was only making Dax more unsettled and uneasy and I knew that things could spiral downwards from there.

My journal entry around the time said:

I think that generally Dax is troubled, confused, hurt, even angry at the changes that have happened in his life. Perhaps he was beginning to trust that he was in a stable place in his previous home, with [his owner] and his pair-bond horse, but we’ve changed all that…
I would love to just put him in a field with a herd, sit with him and observe him, to learn more about him and allow him the opportunity to explore and work things out for himself… but in a yard, there are routines and ‘rules’ which I don’t think suit the place that he’s in at the moment.
I feel that inside him is a beautiful, loving horse who wants to come out, but doesn’t quite know how to trust enough to do that. I want to give him the space to find his way… but I’m worried that this might just be wishful thinking and I’m viewing him with rose-tinted glasses…

Others are suggesting things that just don’t entirely resonate for me – moving of feet, dominance, that sort of thing. I’ve just finished reading Equus Lost and would love to interact with him as a cognitive, social, intelligent, sentient being. But I still need to keep myself safe, and also the others who interact with him (on the yard, plus of course farriers, dentists, vets etc.)
Using strong discipline, and ‘dominance’ theories, doesn’t sit comfortably with me, but he definitely needs boundaries.  And perhaps this is a lesson he’s come to show me, as I’ll admit, my boundaries probably aren’t as defined as they could be!

Following this, I made an effort to be more consistent with my boundaries around Dax, hoping that this would give him a structure that would help him to feel more settled and safe.  It helped a little, but I realised that I was still carrying quite a bit of fear and that this was getting in the way of our relationship.

Fear is behind so many ‘negative’ emotions – the shadow side that we so often seek to hide from the world.

But what if we could view this another way and see our fears as needs that are not being met.  This would then allow us to explore ways to meet those needs, and would also allow us to develop greater awareness, compassion and empathy, both for ourselves and then for those around us, as we realise that any behaviour that we dislike in them is probably driven by their fear.

I decided to explore my fear to see what insight it might bring.  I wrote in my journal:

I think sometimes our wanting is so strong, and can have fear attached (of failure, or whatever) and this makes it difficult to see with clarity, perspective, balance and objectivity.  But we don’t have to be perfect, or to do everything ourselves.  Animals bring us these lessons.  They push us to look into the dark, hidden, shadowy areas of our lives that we, as busy humans, often want to close our eyes to.  But in facing our fears and ‘imperfections’ we are set free.  This is the amazing gift that caring for animals offers us – to open our hearts, to liberate us and to teach us acceptance and unconditional love.

So my dilemma was, where should I go from here?

  • Is Dax really ‘unsafe’?
  • Can the ‘ beautiful, loving horse’ within be encouraged to be brave enough to come out?
  • What would be the best way to work with him to give him boundaries while keeping myself safe and not feeding his fear?
  • How can I learn the lessons this is offering to be the best person for Dax that I can be?

I knew that one important step was to rule out pain from the equation as this can often be a cause of apparently ‘angry’ behaviour.  So I started by booking in a session with Helen Jacks-Hewett the McTimoney and Sports Massage therapist.

Next week I’ll tell you what she found and how things have been progressing since then.

Reflections

Around the time that the changes I outlined last week were going on, the trimmer, Caroline Wang-Andresen of Hoofing Marvellous, came for her second visit.  I spoke with her about what was going on with Dax and mentioned that he seemed unhappy if I tried to lift his front feet, often turning round to bite me.

While she worked on his feet we noticed that he was not as happy to stand still through the trim this time.  He tried to nip her, too, and was more fidgety than before.  She also commented that his feet were more brittle than the last time – a reflection of whatever was going on when that part of the hoof was growing (around autumn/winter last year).

She asked me to walk him up and down – which he did, thankfully – and there was no obvious sign of lameness, but she mentioned the fact that his front right leg twists slightly from the knee downwards.  We wondered if this was causing him any discomfort.  It might be a congenital difference, or could have been due to his rough start in life and not getting the right nutrition as a foal.  Caroline recommended asking her colleague Helen Jacks-Hewett, a McTimoney practitioner, to come and take a look at Dax to make sure that he’s not in any pain and to maybe suggest some ways that I can help to make him more balanced and comfortable.

Dax’s previously ‘rock-crunching’ feet

It was a few weeks before we could find a date that suited both myself and Helen and in the meantime I continued to try and encourage Dax to walk with me.  We had varying amounts of success but, frustratingly, every time I thought we’d made progress, we’d then seem to go back to square one!  I could see that Dax was either shutting down or getting agitated – his eyes would go blank or he would start to chew on the leadrope or toss his head a couple of times – and I didn’t want to push things, particularly as I hadn’t yet been able to have his body checked to rule out any pain or discomfort.

I wrote in my journal at the time:

June 3

“Wondering if this [behaviour] is the predicted challenge of being with an independent thinking horse… sometimes he seems so connected then so distant.”

June 13

“I think Dax had to learn – at a very young age – to survive in whatever way he could, ie to become independent, at least in heart and mind.  I’m sure he’s also learnt that humans should not be trusted, at least until they prove themselves very worthy of that precious gift, and even then, perhaps only in as much as he feels safe / wise to do so…

I, too, felt that I had to take care of myself in many ways as a child.  Dax and I share so much I think – which is why this is challenging for us both… It’s been isolating in some ways for each of us, but hopefully we will find connection and healing through our similarities – that they will bring us together”

Helen came out at the end of July and did a full assessment of Dax’s conformation, suppleness and strength.  In her report she commented that she could find:

“No misalignments located in spine or pelvic joints, and no areas of muscle asymmetry or soreness noted so on the whole there doesn’t appear to be any significant underlying musculoskeletal problems.”

This was a big relief!

She went on to say that:

“His behaviour seems typical for a hand raised foal, and shows a lot of foal like tendencies even though he is 6 years old.

There is a really sweet natured clever horse in there who will hopefully continue to learn and develop given the right herd conditions and handling techniques.” 

I so hope that she’s right, and that I can provide what he needs to bring out that wonderful side of his nature.

But… there’s a darker side too, which I’d seen glimpses of and which then reared it’s ugly head unexpectedly one night.

More about that next week…

The Enigma

The weeks rolled on and Dax’s behaviour started to change subtly.  When he’d first arrived in Bristol he’d seemed happy to walk around on a lead rope and follow me wherever I took him: into the stable, into the field or around the yard.  He was less confident about going out into the lane, so we’d only take a few paces then turned round and come back.  I was aiming to build on this gradually, so that I could take him for walks and we could both have some exercise.

Things didn’t quite go to plan however!

Dax started to plant his feet and refuse to walk – anywhere!  Particularly into his stable.  His nippy-ness was also increasing.  There were days when we’d seem to have a good connection – he’d call to me when I arrived at the yard, or we’d play in the school together – then days when he’d shut down and seem to not want to know me or engage with me in any way.

I’ve found it very interesting – and rather un-nerving – how this situation seemed somehow to have left me feeling so helpless and unsure of what to do.  It’s as if all my training and experience just left me and I felt at a complete loss!  I think it was all just too close, and my mind froze.  It also left me feeling unable to listen to – and trust – my instincts and gut feelings.  I knew they were there, and occasionally they would surface briefly, but somehow I couldn’t quite get a handle on them, or follow them through.  They seemed like mists that slipped away faster the more I tried to grasp them.

Thankfully one of the other women on the yard is very experienced at taking on horses who have had difficult experiences, and she’s great at trying to get inside their heads to see things from their perspective and to understand what it is they’re struggling with and how it can be turned around.  We explored all that was going on when Dax was showing this behaviour.  We considered whether he might be in pain – emotionally or physically.  We considered his eyesight.  We also wondered about his past experiences and how these might be impacting on him.

After much gentle and patient work, my friend has helped Dax to get to the point where he will happily walk himself into the stable.  He now sees it as a safe space out of the heat and away from the flies, where he can tuck into his hay or other treats that I leave for him (usually bits of carrot and celery).  We think he was struggling with going from a bright space into a darker one (horses eyes are more sensitive to contrast and can take a while to adjust from light to dark conditions) and also the fact that there is a slight step down into his stable.  He always seemed to get stuck at the threshold and then try to ‘jump’ or rush the rest of the way in.  He has now learnt to find his own stable and to walk in calmly by himself and I’m so proud of him, and grateful to my friend for all her support.

Next week I’ll share more about my journey with this handsome enigma and all that I’m learning along the way.