Rehab Tools for the Senior, Distressed or Dissociated Horse

By Mary Walby

Rehabilitating the senior horse is a bit of science, with a whole lot of art (and heart!) thrown in the mix. But these same protocols of training, communicating and healing, can work incredibly well with all horses in distress, pain, boredom, or dissociation.

This is the story of my ongoing learning, through rehabbing horses, senior horses in particular. The more I learn, the more I fine tune my methods. I know there will be several hot button topics for some people in this story; from natural horsemanship to round penning, to riding, to what kind of halter to use, to pretty much anything we humans do with horses. I would not be where I am today without all of those hot button topics, and I am thankful, because it is through all of them that I found my life’s calling: rehabbing senior horses.

Thank you to all the riding instructors, horse trainers, and students of the horse – that I may not even always agree with today – but who gave me the best that they knew, and a starting place for my own exploration with the best teachers I now know: the horses themselves.

HORSE #1 – Eclipse

I have always loved horses, and as a child dreamed of owning my own horse. As an adult, when I moved to a new city I had the opportunity to be around horses again, volunteering for a horse therapy program for at-risk kids. Over the next several years my experience around horses grew so much that I began to notice that the kids were getting better, and the horses were burning out.

My curiosity got the better of me, and I started asking questions and experimenting with ways to help the horses. My first rehab case was a 21-year-old Tennessee walker. He had been rescued out of a poor living situation and became a therapy horse. It was at the therapy program that I first met Eclipse. He had an old injury to his pelvis, but the therapy program only did light riding, so it seemed a good fit for him.

One winter he had a flare up of pain in his hip and the “treatment” was stall rest. Since there were no stalls, just paddocks on this farm, they created a stall by closing off part of the shelter. Eclipse was in the dark alone for over 24 hours.

I was still somewhat new to horsekeeping, and I had never had my own horse. I couldn’t see how being locked in a dark space was going to help. If I had injured myself and had a flare up of pain, I would be going to a physical therapist. I made that suggestion to the farm, and the first miracle happened. They agreed to have a physical therapist vet do an evaluation. I was thrilled.

When the physical therapist vet came (Dr. Christine King) she gave an evaluation of Eclipse on all levels: physical, mental, emotional. She confirmed that he had probably separated his pelvis years ago, and that was where the flare up of pain was coming from. She recommended a devil’s claw tincture for pain, either topically on his spine at the sacroiliac joint, and/or in his food.

What really caught my attention was the simplicity of the physical therapy exercises she prescribed:

1. Let him out in a large area and imagine how he would be moving if he were young and healthy, before any injuries happened. Practice feeling that in your own body, while you gently asked him to move a little, thereby encouraging him to move more freely.

2. Stand at his hip, relax, connect, and then introduce a small rocking motion laterally, and then diagonally, front to back, side to side. Do this at each hip and shoulder.

3. Spinal stretch. Put a treat at ground level at his front feet, or behind as he improves in flexibility. The goal is to have the entire top line engage in a rounded stretch.

That was it. It took about 15 minutes per day. I organized a team of five volunteers and had every day of the week covered. We all kept a notebook to chart our progress with helping Eclipse and to compare notes with each other. He never did have another flare up of pain in that hip.

In six months, he became a pro at the spinal stretch. He could activate his top line like a dressage horse. In addition, his hips became more integrated with the rest of his body. It was amazing to witness, and all it took was 15 minutes a day of a specific protocol.

I was hooked. I couldn’t wait to see what he was capable of next.

On an emotional level, Eclipse was also a fearful, nervous horse. Once when he was new to the farm, someone left him tied alone in the barn one evening. I remember seeing the white of his eyes as he stood there, clearly worried. And then someone came along and asked if they could untie him and give him something to do. In 20 minutes this person gave him a level of security he did not have before, just by teaching him a series of ground exercises. The whites of his eyes were gone, and he could relax. I was amazed.

I remember calling this person up and saying, “I want to know everything you know.”

And so began my training in natural horsemanship. For the first time I learned about how to read the eyes of a horse, and how the energy of my presence can affect a horse.

I also took some Pony Boy workshops that really helped me with how to read a horse’s body language. One class was on round penning. I returned home and tried it with Eclipse. Initially, it really triggered his fear and he would go into a gallop from the tiniest request from me. My goal was just a calm walk or trot, no need to be running around, but if you want to run around, okay. So I would respond by walking across the round pen to cut him off, so he would have to turn. I knew within a few turns he would clue into the fact that I was not asking him to run around like crazy, I was just asking for calm movement going forward.

Over the next several weeks, he improved tremendously. His anxiety lowered. Gone were the full out gallops and instead a calm, secure horse emerged. Kids even had an easier time connecting with him. He was so sensitive and tuned in that I once taught a teenager to lead him, through monitoring her breath alone…

This teenage girl in drug and alcohol recovery was having an okay day with Eclipse. I noticed her body language and could see that she wasn’t at her fullest, energized self, and neither was Eclipse.

As she was about to leave I stopped her and asked, “Would you like to try something as you lead him back to his paddock?”

She agreed. I told her to not worry about the lead rope. Let it out several feet and don’t do anything with it. Instead, breathe in to go and then start walking. To stop, breathe out and bring your feet to a stop. She tried this a few times, and soon Eclipse was perfectly in tune with her breath, stopping and starting whenever her breath indicated it. She was amazed and beaming ear to ear.

These were the kind of moments I was discovering about horses, and I wanted others to discover them as well.

HORSE #2 – Carro

My second rehab case was a quarter horse gelding in his mid-twenties. Carro was also part of the therapy program. Unfortunately, his claim to fame was being a 24/7 cribber. It worked well for the program drawing the analogy between his “addict” behavior and that of the kids in drug and alcohol rehab. That is, until he started to bite clients. Then there was talk of putting him down because he seemed so unhappy. “Grumpy” was a common word used to describe him. The fact that he was a hard keeper, and therefore heavily grain-fed, did not help matters.

Carro before Rehab

When I looked at Carro, I instinctively knew that his needs were not being met, and he did not need to be put down just because no one knew what to do with him. I suggested that perhaps a regular exercise routine might help him. This was the first of many miracles. The therapy program agreed to let me work with him and see what I could find out.

Since he had already bitten someone who interrupted his cribbing to halter him, I gave him a lot of room when I entered his paddock with a halter in hand. He was busy cribbing, so I walked 30 feet away from him staying out of his space and facing his tail.

I just stood there observing, doing nothing, not even an intention to get a halter on him or anything. My mind was clear. He just stood there and cribbed. After quite some time, he stopped cribbing and craned his neck almost 180 degrees to look at me 30 feet behind him. I did nothing. He went back to cribbing.

Several minutes passed and he stopped cribbing again and looked at me. I did nothing. He resumed cribbing.

This dance went on for quite some time. Then I got the sense that I could come closer to him without getting a negative response. I came to just off his hip, but clearly out of his kick zone. I was curious to know if I asked him to move his hip over, if he would. I asked, he did nothing, so I left it alone.

Eventually I made it to his shoulder, and I felt comfortable and confident that I hadn’t crossed any of his boundaries. Then I tried something I had never done. I put the halter out straight in front of me, so about 1-2 feet away from his nose. I wasn’t trying to put the halter on him, nor even have it pointed in his direction. He’d have to stop cribbing and turn his head to be able to put his nose in the halter.

I wanted his buy-in. It was the only safe way to interact with him and not get hurt. I really didn’t know what he was going to do. After a moment, Carro stopped cribbing, tipped his nose toward me, and dropped his head into the halter.

I was overjoyed. He was in there, and he gave me a little glimpse of himself. I was also in disbelief. I kept my calm, secured the halter and then happily led him out of his “prison”.

I did a few ground exercises with Carro that I learned from Eclipse. I found him to be quite responsive, much more than some of the other horses on the farm. He led like a dream. Whatever problems other people were having with him, they weren’t there when I was working with him.

I reported back to the office of the therapy program: Carro doesn’t need to be put down, he needs regular exercise.

Over the next several months I worked with him a few times a week. One day, I arrived and saw him in his paddock, and to my surprise he wasn’t cribbing. I was shocked. I had never seen him not cribbing. The only thing that had changed was the addition of the exercise program.

I also teamed up with another volunteer who had much more riding experience than I did to find a saddle that fit him. Since his shoulders were uneven, every western saddle pinched them. We found an English saddle that cleared his shoulders. We got rid of the snaffle bit since he tuned it out, and found a bitless bridle instead. He neck-reigned beautifully, and at the slightest cue he would take off running, not out of fear, but the joy of feeling better. His shoulders could move freely, and there was nothing in his mouth. To bring him to a stop was a simple exhale. It was amazing. This horse that everyone was ready to give up on was coming back to life.

When we were fitting the saddle, we checked along his spine for sore points. We found a few, especially at the shoulders. What I also noticed was that there were other places along his spine where he would close his eyes. I soon began experimenting with looking for the places to touch him where he would relax.

One day I took my experiment a step further by accident. I was at his hips with my hands resting on him, and in my mind I expressed how much I appreciated him. To my surprise, his eyes closed right in sync with the thought in my head. Intrigued, I kept going. How much appreciation could I feel in my body for him? Carro was a horse that worked so very hard for humans, and it seemed that there wasn’t much appreciation for everything he had given and was still being asked to give, even though his tank was dry. He soaked up every positive thought from me. I felt amazing. I had never intentionally maintained that level of positive emotion in myself before. It also felt good to be able to do that for him, and to see his positive response to it. We were both easily there for an hour, just hanging out in his paddock.

Once again, I was hooked. What else was possible?

As I began to have these wonderful discoveries with both Eclipse and Carro, I began to see the pitfalls of trying to run a therapy program and also keep the horses healthy – on all levels – all while the horses are aging. Eager to discover more ways to help horses without having to also help kids in therapy, I decided to leave the program.

I told them, “When you’re ready to retire a horse, call me. I’ll take them.”

Carro was retired to me 5 months later. It was a straight-up learning curve about how to feed and manage a 26-year-old cribbing gelding. I knew horses needed a lot of space to move, so I found a several-acre pasture with another horse for company where he would be free to come and go as he pleased 24/7.

Carro happy in his field

I removed all grain from his diet. I had discovered while at the therapy program, that he would be fine eating hay, but within 10 minutes of being fed grain, he’d leave the still half-full grain bucket and go find a place to crib. I removed all treats from his diet. No carrots, no apples. The simple sugars in them also triggered him to crib almost instantaneously.

He had access to food at all times, and therefore, could generate his own heat in winter, so a blanket wasn’t necessary. He was already barefoot and doing fine, so shoes never became a part of my paradigm. However, I did use Easy Boots for him on trails over rocky ground.

I found the best hay I could. I found a vitamin/mineral supplement. I read everything I could get my hands from a holistic perspective: Dr. Eleanor Kellon and her nutrition classes, Katy Watts and her research on sugar in grass, Pete Ramey and the evolution of his barefoot trim, equine dentists, etc.

Carro, 6 years later

I even found a chiropractor that used an activator instead of his bare hands. Carro gave it a thumbs up since an activator is faster than the pain response, while even the best hands are not. So despite this horse being in chronic pain, he loved the chiropractor because it didn’t hurt to be adjusted.

Slowly, the amount of time he spent cribbing decreased. After a few years, he only cribbed when the grass started growing in the spring. Several years later, when my hay choices rubbed off on the owner of the other horse he was housed with, I was able to switch to feeding free-choice hay 24/7. That is when the residual cribbing ceased completely.

Carro, age 34 – no blanket, no shoes

HORSE #3 – Soleil

About 4 years into Carro’s retirement with me, Soleil arrived. He too was retired from the same therapy program. Like Carro, he had been a therapy horse for about 8 years. In year 8 is when he began a pattern of biting people (when he had never bitten before), very much like Carro. That is when the retirement discussion began. But no decision was made until Soleil cornered and kicked, on more than one occasion, the lowest horse in the pecking order who just so happened to be the poster child for the program. I have to hand it to him; he chose the right time to stage the event, right in the middle of “circle time” with the kids in the adjacent room in the barn. Everyone, kids included, heard and saw the commotion. Soleil was promptly retired within 3 weeks to me.

Soleil – before Rehab

I was a bit shocked that this fun loving, low-key, gentle horse that wouldn’t even hurt a baby, had become an aggressive, biting horse. Before I agreed to take him, I went to go see him. I can’t help a horse if they don’t want my help, and I have no intention of forcing them to do anything, even rehab for their own benefit.

The evening I saw him, it was feeding time. I stayed outside of his paddock and discussed his situation with the owner. It was clear that he needed to retire, and needed a new home. I did not have an emotional attachment to this horse, so I was hoping that someone else did and would step forward to help him. No such thing happened. It seemed I was the only one who even knew where to begin to help him.

I also learned that he had chronic diarrhea so his hind legs were washed frequently. No vet had been able to determine a cause, nor solve it. After finishing my discussion with the owner of the therapy center, I went into his paddock – to the farthest corner from him – and sat down on the mats facing away from him. My eyes searched the paddock floor for evidence of the diarrhea. Then I saw it. Rather than manure balls there was manure the consistency of spread peanut butter. Then I heard this loud splashing noise. I looked over and it was like someone had turned a faucet on. A large amount of liquid came out of this horse, where manure balls were supposed to come out. A little while later, he urinated.

“Ok, then, that’s how you poop and pee,” I thought to myself. That was important information for me if I decided to take him.

I must have sat there for about half an hour, just being in his presence from afar, observing everything around me. He didn’t seem opposed to me being there, but he wasn’t exactly running over to me to say ‘hi’ by breathing on me. I took that as a neutral response, which is not a “no”. So I told the owner I’d think about it and get back to her in a few days.
As I drove home, I knew God was calling me to help this horse. I knew he’d be coming to live with me. But one step at a time. I needed money to fund this project.

I told everyone I knew what was happening, how this horse needed help, and how much it was going to cost up front just to get a baseline on him and to determine how best to help him. I gave God the ultimatum that I needed money. If there was money, then I would take him. Within two days enough money appeared from donors to take care of him for 6 months. A little part of me was hoping God would find someone else, but I kept my word. There was no going back now. I called the owner and arranged to pick him up.

Integrating a gelding into a herd of 2 geldings and a mare took a few weeks. Thankfully there was plenty of space for the horses to get away from each other and be nowhere near each other. I had a front row seat to how horses work it out themselves. It was during this transition that many times this new horse would stand near the edge of the property and just look down the road on which he came. I got the sense that he missed the friends he had left.

While I had hoped for a smoother transition, I couldn’t ignore the fact that he seemed to be pining for his old home, no matter how much he needed to retire. When this went on for a few weeks, I remember telling him, as hard as it was for me to say, “If you’d like to go back, I will take you back.”

Never mind that I knew they could not take care of a senior horse and his changing needs, but if that’s what he really wanted, then I would honor it.

A short time later, things changed for the better. I was able to solve the mystery of the chronic diarrhea. Within 2 weeks of his arrival, the yearly visit from the equine dentist had I found for Carro rolled around. It was perfect timing. The dentist told me that his teeth were completely worn out and incapable of chewing hay. I told him about the diarrhea, and he said, “If large unchewed pieces of hay get all the way to the colon, they can irritate it and cause the diarrhea.” I was thrilled. Perhaps all I had to do was remove the hay from the diet, find something else to feed, and maybe the diarrhea would disappear.

Being a traditional western vet, in addition to a cutting edge equine dentist, he recommended going to a senior horse complete feed instead of hay. But I had already been through the grain issues with Carro, and all the damage it did to his gut. There was no way I was going to feed grain to this horse. Thankfully, I had a holistic vet to consult with, and she recommended feeding soaked hay pellets or cubes, weighed and fed in the same amount you would weigh hay.

For variety in the diet, I found timothy and orchard grass pellets, and then a few pounds of alfalfa pellets for protein. He maintained his weight on pasture and 1% of his body weight in pellets in the growing season, and then 1.5 % of his body weight in pellets in the winter. It cost more than feeding hay, but I knew he’d be healthier for it, and that was the whole point. The bonus was that I had no more vet bills after that!

I’d often put some of the soaked pellets in a feed bag and go out into the field to give him an extra helping. When the other horses tried to get the feed bag from him, it was impossible. He just took a step away and the other horses would stand there looking at him and his feed bag. Not knowing what to do to get some of his food, and they eventually just decided to leave him alone, even though he was the low man on the totem pole. We soon had a communication worked out. I’d arrive and walk to the gate and stare at him. He would stare back with both eyes, and then it was just of question of “Am I going out to you, or do you want to come up here?”

He was improving in health with space to move, healthy food to eat and friends that he eventually made with the other horses. He even teamed up with the mare in the herd. They often hung out together and even started mutually grooming each other. It was beautiful to see.

Within two weeks of his new diet, the diarrhea was gone, never to return. If that was all I could do for him, I would call that success.

With his physical issues and needs on track, I turned to what would be the biggest gift this horse gave me: an understanding of who a horse is from their point of view. When that is honored, emotional health returns.

Soleil, 6 months into Rehab

You see, Soleil was such a well-trained 4-H horse; with the slightest cue from a rider, he would perform the request effortlessly. He had won many blue ribbons before becoming a therapy horse. However, he was so well-trained that I had no idea of his personality, or who he was. He would do anything you said, and waited to be told what to do.

After he settled into his retirement home with me and the other horses, I started taking him on grazing walks down the road with Carro to increase the variety of plants in his diet. I noticed that he loved dandelion, and sought them out. I learned that dandelion is a liver detoxifier. I made a point each time I was out to let him eat dandelions for 15 minutes. He knew better than I did what he needed, so I was glad to see this piece of information from him. Another time, he ate the cracked dirt right out of the ditch on one of our walks. I heard this chomping noise and looked over to see him munching away. I let him do what he needed, even though I didn’t fully understand the purpose of eating pebbles, dirt and sand.

I also toyed with the idea of letting him lead the walks, but after a few times of me ending up in an unsafe position I decided to make one rule: You can be anywhere you want, but your eyes must stay behind me. I had learned from Mary Ann Simonds who has studied wild horses for over 30 years that whoever has their eyes in front is the leader. When wild stallions take their foals on patrol, the foal’s eyes are clearly behind the stallion’s eyes.

I adopted this technique with Soleil, and he relaxed, and I felt much safer. When something did spook him, like a deer sitting down in the adjacent field, he backed up 10 feet. I felt the lead rope running through my hands, fully aware that he was backing away quickly. I let him go without hesitation and without looking back. I trusted that he would take care of himself. There was no need for me to stop his backing up. I had 15 feet of rope, and I knew if I let him move he would feel safe again probably at about 10 feet out. Sure enough, that’s exactly what happened.

Soleil & Carro on a walk and then a massage

Once he got used to the routine of our grazing walks and being behind me when I led him, I started asking him to walk in front of me. Soon he was looking for plants to browse and making decisions on where to stop and eat.

In the first few weeks of owning him, we encountered a neighbor on our walk. Carro, who’d been in my rehab program for four years, greeted the neighbor, while Soleil looked past the neighbor, focusing on something in the distance. Any gesture by the neighbor to touch him, or try to connect in a typical human way, was not only not reciprocated, but Soleil was checked out of the entire scenario. Even the neighbor commented on the contrast between the two horses.

Initially, Soleil also would bump me with his nose right in my solar plexus when haltered if I was too close to his head. It did not feel good. I resisted “correcting” him. It only happened twice, but I quickly realized he needed more space. I gave him a bigger bubble of space, and it never happened again. I had also learned from my aikido training that I was in control of how far away my body was from his, and being just outside of his reach served two purposes: 1) It respected his sense of his personal space, and 2) I didn’t get hurt.

On another walk, just he and I, we went to the cul-de-sac to graze and I started talking with the neighbor there. I was hoping Soleil would start making his own decisions. I put the lead rope over his back and let him do whatever he wanted. He dutifully stood there not moving while I talked to the neighbor for about 10 minutes. I even said to the neighbor, “He’s so well-trained that he’ll do anything I say, however, I don’t know him and what he really thinks. I’m hoping he’ll make his own decision and just start walking off somewhere.”

A few minutes later, Soleil decided to amble forward. Not holding onto him in any way, I just stood and watched. I was witnessing one of his first decisions. I was wondering what he would do. Would he walk all the way home? Would he go find some dandelions to eat? I knew if I just stood there long enough and watched I was going to see a whole new side of him.

He started walking down the road at a nice pace. When he was a few hundred yards away, I realized, “He really is going home.” I said goodbye to the neighbor and walked as quickly, and as relaxed as I could, to catch up to him. I did not disrupt his flow, or his intention, but I joined him in his determined walk home, thrilled that I just got a glimpse of him and what he really thought.

Early on in his retirement I tried long-lining as preparation to teach him how to drive, and maybe that would be something fun we could do together. However, after a few sessions and a few mini battles, I realized that was not what he needed, nor wanted, so I dropped it.

Instead, one day we went for a walk through the woods and rather than encourage him to keep up with me, I decided to match his pace. It was so slow, like an amble through the woods. Determined to understand him, I let go of my preconceived notions and matched his pace. He would take a few steps and then stop, and then nibble some grass, and then walk some more, and then stop for a longer time to eat some salmonberry bushes.

It was in this other worldly pace of start, stop, amble, graze that a whole new world opened up to me. I noticed two white moths with a faint blue streak on their wings darting in and out of the salmonberry bushes. The sunlight was streaming through the green foliage in an electric green display. For the first time I realized that this was Soleil’s home: the trees lining our path, the gentle breeze, and the beauty of creation all around us. No wonder he wasn’t in a hurry. It was so beautiful, peaceful and energizing I didn’t want it to end. I enjoyed every moment of that walk, as did he. It became our new normal.

Back at the pasture where I kept Soleil with the other horses, I began an experiment with letting him decide if he wanted to go on a walk. I would hold the halter out straight in front of me, like I had done several years earlier with Carro, and wait to see if he would tip his nose into it. Usually, he would just stand there, not changing what he was doing before I arrived. I took that as a “no” and then said out loud, if you change your mind come to the gate before I leave with Carro.

Many times he said “no” to the halter. I honored it, and left him alone. Every once in a while he would appear at the gate just before I left with Carro. I’d put the halter out straight in front of me, and he would put his nose In.

The other area where I let him call the shots, was when it came to brushing him. He disliked being touched, petted or brushed. He had been touched so much as a therapy horse for 8 years that I could see how he was done with being touched. I so rarely touched him that people thought I didn’t love him. That couldn’t have been further from the truth. I cared so much about his well-being, that I was willing to forgo my desire to touch him if it meant that he might fully come back into himself. At the time, I had no idea if that would happen, but I was willing to try my experiment.

However, I was a little concerned with not brushing him at all because he was not in the best of nutritional health, and I knew things could start growing in his coat if left unchecked. I made a deal with him that I would only brush him once a week. Even then, I was only really checking for issues in his coat.

Soleil – 3 years after his arrival

When I went to brush Soleil, I always did it with him completely loose and free to walk off. I don’t remember the last time I tied a horse. I began to realize that it was much safer if a horse was free to leave if they deemed it necessary. Restraining a horse who wants/needs to move is a recipe for getting hurt.

What I noticed over the next several months is that he would be ok with me brushing his legs, but if I touched his belly, he would walk off. I let him go, encouraged by the fact that he did have an opinion, and he was expressing it.

Months and years went by of letting him walk off, of letting him decide if he wanted to put the halter on to go for a walk. One day I took both Carro and Soleil for a walk. When we got to the top of the driveway I let Soleil decide which way to go. He decided to go right. He led the way down the road and stopped to graze by a house with horses in the pasture, who all came over to say hello. After a while, he decided to walk back home, so we all followed, except he didn’t turn into the driveway towards home, he kept going past it. We all followed until we reached the cul-de-sac and the horse that lived there. He stopped there to graze and say hello to that horse. After a while, he led us back home, and this time he did turn into the driveway of his home.

I was fascinated. Given the choice, he did have thoughts about what he would like to do! I asked myself, “How can I do less, so he can initiate more?”

One morning, after I had finished feeding all the horses, I realized I was tired and really wanted to take a nap. I was about to drive home to do that when I remembered I had a foam camping mat in the trunk of my car. It was a beautiful day, and I saw Soleil taking a nap under the trees. I got my foam mat, and headed to the same grove of trees.

So as not to inadvertently put any pressure on him, I kept my distance and ignored him as I walked by to find a tree off the beaten path for my nap. As I set up my mat, he left his own napping spot and started walking toward me. I continued to ignore him, curious to see what he had in mind, without any interference from me. To my surprise, he stopped 15 feet away (10-15 feet is a horse’s sense of personal space). Facing me, he cocked a hind leg in relaxation and took a nap.

I was honored.

He didn’t want to be touched, but he did want connection. For months, he taught me about all the communication that goes on among horses, before they ever physically touch each other, which, by the way, they rarely do. It was a whole new experience. Then it dawned on me, this horse that didn’t want to be touched, was sharing his experience of the world with me.

Hanging out with him became another new normal. Instead of hugging him goodbye, or touching him in the evening when I would leave, I would find a place under the trees where he was taking a nap. I would face out the same way he was, a little ways distant from him, breathe and relax. The stars were out, and it was quite beautiful. These were some of my favorite times with him.

A couple of years into his retirement, he began to initiate with me. He’d see me arrive, and then look at me with both eyes. I would enter the field and walk right past him. Yes, I’d acknowledge him from a great distance away, but as I got closer I switched to “ignoring” him. I did this to keep the pressure off of him, and if he really wanted something from me, then he would need to go out of his way to request it. Sure enough, the next thing I knew he was following after me. I stopped. He came up and parked, asking me to itch his belly. For a horse that was so well-trained that he only did what he was told, I was thrilled with the transformation. For him to actually request something from a human was huge.

Three years and 9 months into his retirement, he laid down one morning in his favorite napping spot by his favorite tree and died. It was a quick and painless death, a ruptured aortic aneurysm. I read that copper is responsible for the integrity of the blood vessel walls. Given how meticulously I had monitored his nutrition and diet, I was perplexed.

After months of research I discovered that sulphur and many other things can interfere with copper absorption. I had started a joint supplement (containing sulphur) 6 months earlier, because of increasing difficulty with picking up his feet to be trimmed. Some joint supplements have additional copper in them, however, at the time, I didn’t realize the potential interactions with the ingredients in the joint supplement, and neither did the vet I consulted. I don’t know anything for a fact, but I do know if I ever use a joint supplement again, I’ll be looking for one with supplemental copper in it.

When I look back at the before-and-after pictures of his eyes, I see the transformation of his emotional well-being and his coming back fully into himself. My crazy experiments of letting him walk off, letting him decide if he wanted to put on the halter, letting him decide which way to go on our walks, letting him decide the pace of our walks, not touching him, etc, etc. – anything I could do to put the decision-making power in his hands – had paid off.

Soleil choosing dandelions on our walk

After the death of Soleil, I did what I would do if a person had died: I held a horse funeral. It was the first one I ever attended or created, and it was a first for everyone who came. In my experience of losing family members, funerals were a celebration, and horses were no exception. We sang songs and read readings that were meaningful to me. I made a movie recapping his retirement, gave a eulogy, and invited everyone to share their experience of him. It was one of the best things I did for myself.

My other favorite tool for processing any kind of loss, including losing a horse is, The Grief Recovery Handbook. Without it, I would not have been ready to open my arms one more time to the next senior horse that came my way.

Two and half years later, Horse #4 knocked at my door, and I was ready.

HORSE #4 – Prima

Prima was beyond anything I had ever attempted rehabbing senior horses. A 21-year-old Trakehner mare, not only did she have the usual muscular/skeletal issues, along with some emotional shut-down, but she had internal issues that were a ticking time bomb: urinary incontinence with no known cause. With her uterus also full of urine, the constant threat of infection loomed. The vet also discovered low-grade kidney failure. Western veterinary medicine had no solution. Worst case scenario, it would take her out. Prognosis was poor and the previous owner was going to euthanize her.

She too was retiring from being a therapy horse, not so much because of emotional issues, but because her urinary incontinence started dripping onto her hind legs and the daily care increased significantly. The problem had been there for years, but not until it started to affect the human’s work load did it move up in the priority list. Coupled with her non-rideable status from hind-end instability, retirement was an easy choice.

When I was contacted about possibly taking her in retirement, I contacted my equine chiropractor to see if he had any ideas. He mentioned that there is a nerve that goes through the sacrum to the bladder. If it is infringed upon, that can cause incontinence. From his experience, it is worth trying chiropractic to see if it helps solve the incontinence. I was hopeful. If he was willing to try, then so was I. I made the call to pick her up.

When I picked up Prima, I had known her for all of one hour. Out of respect for her I let her initiate the first contact and the first touch. With all of the change going on, I didn’t want to add any more than necessary. When I arrived to pick her up, I let her finish eating her hay with her herd of horse friends. This was the last time she would be with them, and with horses being very social animals, I wanted her to have that.

When it was time to load her in the trailer, I had someone she knew load her. When she arrived at her new home, I had that same familiar person unload her and set her free. I spent a lot of time just observing from afar. It was hours before I ever touched her and that was to give her a little massage as she took a nap under the trees. Her favorite spot that day was her butt muscle right alongside her tail. When she was done with the massage, she walked off. I was glad to see that she had no problem letting me know when she didn’t want anymore.

The next day she approached me on two different occasions asking for her head to be scratched. This was a first, so I happily obliged. It was also confirmation for me that I had not overstepped the day before. The next day, she asked for another head scratch.

Relationships with horses, or even with people, are built slowly over time, with mutual respect of the other person’s or animal’s space. With this as the foundation, I knew I would eventually be better be able to read the fine nuances of her body language, which in turn would help me be more effective in her rehab.

I also knew Prima was not a problem to be fixed, but rather a living, sentient being with a personality all her own, with her own likes and dislikes that I would come to learn. Yes, there are serious health issues I was addressing, but I never wanted to lose sight of the gift of her presence at any given moment. And despite the health challenges, she was one happy horse in retirement, free to come and go as she pleased in a herd, with no human expectations.

When Prima arrived, I put her out to pasture with the herd and never thought about her hind end stiffness again. Just 24/7 movement would help her immensely. Since she was coming from a small paddock, with just the additional pasture alone, she would begin her own rehab of regaining flexibility throughout her body.

She instantly hit it off with Carro when she arrived. They became immediate friends. She happily took the #2 position in the herd, and yet Carro gave her tremendous leeway, more than he had ever given any other horse before. When I saw them drinking out of the water trough in unison, I knew they had a special relationship. She was one happy horse, and Carro who was now 36 years old and in great health, emotionally and physically, had a new spring in his step. Looking back, I’m so glad that Carro was so healthy. He could handle taking care of her right through to the end – and wanted to.

Carro & Prima drinking from the same trough

Was the stiffness still there, to some degree, in her hind end? Yes, I saw it when she went to lie down. She had a difficult time folding her hind legs under her, to bring her body closer to the ground, so instead she would have a bit of a clunk getting her body down. But she still laid down and got up on a regular basis. I soon realized that the instability in her hind end, was the least of our problems, as was the urine on her hind legs. The chronic internal infections coupled with kidney failure would become a matter of life and death.

Knowing that time was of the essence, we started chiropractic within days of her arriving. We did see an improvement in urination. We began seeing “medium urinations” as opposed to the usual dribble. This was cause for celebration. In addition, I did TTouch on her left hip one evening and about 10 minutes in, she had a big release and urinated with a medium flow. I was so happy… to say the least.

Meanwhile I found a homeopathic/Chinese medicine vet who had many options for treating the incontinence. There was tremendous hope for solving this puzzle.

An interesting aspect of homeopathy and Chinese medicine, is that the patient is taken into consideration. Knowing the patient is paramount to selecting the appropriate remedy or treatment. For me, however, I did not know her. She had just come, and I did not know her in her new holistic environment where she did not need to meet any human expectations. By the time we started the homeopathy and Chinese medicine, she had started having weekly health issues show up from an allergic reaction to a bloody discharge. Every week I was on the phone with the vet, just trying to keep her well enough to even try the homeopathy and Chinese medicine.

On an emotional level for me, I began to dread going out to see Prima, afraid of what I might find. Would she be alive? What new health issue would happen? I told her I was afraid of her dying. One day she looked at me with both of her eyes. I always make a habit to stop, breathe and feel when a horse looks at me like this. When I did this with her, what came to me was, “You don’t have to do anything. You don’t even have to do your best. Just show up and be. That is enough.” Little did I realize, that would become the theme of her 3-month rehab right through to her death. All of her health issues began years ago, and I had arrived on the scene hoping to plug the drain as I watched a tsunami approach. No matter what happened, yes, I could show up and just be.

The primary sign I was monitoring, along with vital signs, was “going off feed”. If that happened, then I knew the worst-case scenario would be unfolding. The problem was, she was never really “on” feed, right from the beginning. For almost two months she’d had a pickiness in eating. She would eat hay and pasture grass, however, her supplements were a different story. She wouldn’t even eat molasses, not that I wanted to feed it, but mixing it with the nutritional supplements did nothing. She wasn’t going to touch it.

Knowing what I know now, she was actually “off feed” from the day she arrived. There were so many variables with her moving to a new home, new herd, new routine, new food, new everything, that being picky about food could have been any of those things. Now when I see pickiness in a horse, I know infection is another cause to consider.

It all came to a head when she spiked a fever for the first time, and went on antibiotics. When the vet examined her, we discovered her uterus was no longer full of urine. That was cause for celebration! Overnight she perked up and started eating the supplements I had been trying to feed her for the past several weeks. She even happily ate the soaked hay pellets that I had been wanting to feed her, to help her gain weight. For the first time, I had clarity in what was going on. What a relief! However, the blood work that came back from the vet confirmed significant kidney damage. He was surprised she was still standing.

There is nothing like the present moment when rehabbing a senior horse. Over the next several weeks I walked the tightrope of treating ongoing infections, while trying not to tax the kidneys, and trusting that she would be alive each time I went out to see her, which became daily. She was a fighter, and I was going to fight right along with her, as long as she was still in the game.

Prima enjoying her field

During her brief three-month rehab, I let Prima call the shots. I washed her hind legs from the urinary incontinence, less and less. I preferred to leave her loose when I did it, so she would be free to walk off. She regularly did. Only once in three months was there was a lesion on her leg, but by the time I got to it, she had already taken care of it and it was well scabbed over. In the last weeks of her life, I may have treated just a few spots. It was rare to even use Desitin (yes, the baby diaper rash cream works wonders for protecting skin).

I trimmed her front feet once. She let me. It was very clear to me that she was cooperating with me, but the moment the thought entered my mind to roll the edge of the hoof wall to finish the trim, she immediately took her foot back.

I never did pick up her hind feet. She wasn’t interested. Although, I did watch a flare grow out, when I asked for her foot to trim it, she refused. I said, ‘okay, and if you want help later with it, let me know.’

Later came in about 2 weeks. Prima found me, parked, and cocked her right hind leg. My eyes immediately went to her foot with the flare. By this time the flare was half-way worked off and sticking out about a half inch.

I asked out loud, “Do you want me to nipper off the rest for you?”

I went and got my nippers, and did the job without needing to pick up her foot. She was satisfied and walked off when I was done.

A few weeks later, I was trimming Carro in the field loose, and she came over and parked again at his hind end where I was trimming, and cocked her right hind leg.

I’m thought to myself, “I’m not touching it. You’ve been doing a fine job yourself taking care of it.” But she didn’t move, despite me ignoring her stance.

Finally, I said, “Do you want me to look at it?”

Ok, ok, I’ll look at it.

With complete ease from her, (no issues with hind end stability here) I picked her right hind foot up for the first time, and saw the handiwork of how she was maintaining it. Where the flare had chunked out, she had grown a massive sole to take the place of the heel triangle that must have gone with the flare. It was working quite well, and she was sound. I didn’t dare take anything off.

I put her foot back down and said, “If you want me to trim it, you’re going to have to cock it again.”

I went back to trimming Carro. A moment later, I looked over, and saw her cock her right hind foot again.

Ok, ok. I picked her foot up again to see what I might trim. Everything looked pretty good. On the inside heel there was a tiny flare, so I did two small nippers to remove it. As I did it, I noticed that the integrity of the hoof wall was already starting to go. We were both on the same page.

I never did trim her feet again after that. On occasion if I could get a little bit of a flare from the outside with nippers, then I would.

I also discovered that walking through pea gravel was a great way to pick out her feet. I rarely picked up her feet to clean them.

This experience of letting her call the shots to this degree (rarely trimming her feet, not washing her legs, etc.) contradicted my rational mind and how one is measured by society of giving ‘proper care to a horse’. But I’ve come to realize that my ultimate teacher is the horse themselves. Who am I to argue with them?

So when it came to dying, I really wanted it to be in her hands, not mine. The last week she was alive, her health issues started to pile up, and yet she was still standing, looking at me saying, “Ok, what’s next?”

The last morning she was alive, the infection we were trying to treat went septic. Death was inevitable. Yet, I couldn’t ignore her pain and struggle. It was only going to get worse until she died, and she was in respiratory failure. And the pain killers weren’t helping.

This was the line in the sand for me. I thought if we could just make her comfortable, she could die on her own, but I soon realized that was not going to happen. To my disappointment, there is no palliative care in western veterinary medicine for this situation. It was respiratory failure; it was tremendous pain (it has to be huge for a prey animal to even show pain), and it was a struggle to get up. Yes, she was dying, but it would probably take hours in this state. Without the ability to make her comfortable, or at least take the edge off, I didn’t want her to suffer.

In that moment I had clarity about the decision to have the vet euthanize her, but how I wished there was some other way. I had let Prima make all the decisions to this point, and this last one, I was making for her. I knew she was incredibly happy with Carro and her new home, free to come and go as she pleased, day and night. What horse would want to leave that? Certainly not her. She was a fighter, and she was not going to go without a fight.

As I look back on euthanizing her, one of the things that bothered me was that she did not want to go. If I had let her make the call, she would have died on her own. I’ve known many people who have euthanized their animals when the animal “told” them it was time. I had never heard of the opposite happening, until it happened with Prima.

In my research so far, what I’ve learned is that when she was in pain and no veterinary medication could help it, she was in the sympathetic nervous system state. That is the fight, flight, or freeze reaction.

Then I read about someone’s experience massaging above the eyes of a horse in a similar situation. She was able to slow the horse’s respiratory rate; the horse stopped thrashing around and closed his eyes. What I find fascinating about this is that she was able to help the horse move from the sympathetic to the parasympathetic nervous system (which is the rest state).

I also learned some acupressure points after her death that would be worth a try in that scenario, as well as adding Lavender essential oil for a calming effect to my “death and dying” tool box. What’s coming into focus for me, is that while veterinary medicine could provide euthanasia, it could not provide the transition to the rest state in the dying process for Prima. What gives me hope is that through natural remedies that transition is possible.

Every death is unique and has its own set of circumstances, and there are no guarantees. Would I have still euthanized her? Perhaps. But I now have more tools to help a horse to come to a rest state before they take their last breath.
From my martial arts training, it is in the rest state that there are a myriad of options that are not known to the rational brain. There is great hope there, and it is in that place that I most clearly hear the horse’s voice.

My entire purpose in rehabbing senior horses is to see them thrive on all levels. What has become clear to me over the years is that listening to their voice does wonders for their emotional health. A gentle, curious horse comes forth.

Prima certainly challenged my idea of what listening to a horse looked like. She took it to a whole new level where I did not want to share that I was rarely trimming her feet, nor washing her legs very often, or even now considering letting her die on her own when in pain. What person in their right mind does such a thing? The answer… someone who loves so much that they are willing to be judged or misunderstood. And they see that as a small price to pay for honoring the voice of another being, even when it goes against the rational mind.

I know that this is so far out there it may be incomprehensible for some people. That is okay. What I know is that we all have the power within us to make a difference in our own unique way. No matter what your beliefs are, there are plenty of horses in desperate need of you and your expertise.

I had no intention of being this far out on the fringe when I began rehabbing senior horses over a decade ago, but that’s where the horses have led me. I don’t know where they will lead me next, but I do know it will be beyond my imagination, and it will most likely blow my mind, right along with everyone else’s.

A special thank you to these four horses and what they have taught me:

HORSE #1 – Eclipse: the power of a simple physical therapy regiment

HORSE #2 – Carro: the power of diet/nutrition and touch

HORSE #3 – Soleil: the power of “no touch”

HORSE #4 – Prima: the power of listening even when the rational mind does not understand.

And to all the future senior horses that will come my way, I look forward to the continuing journey.

Mary Walby began rehabbing senior horses by accident over 10 years ago at the same time she started training in the martial art of Aikido to learn how to fall off a horse. Little did she realize that the essence of Aikido would permeate every aspect of her life and make it better, from performing and teaching piano, to rehabbing senior horses. She recently founded God’s Window Senior Horse Rehab and Sanctuary, a non-profit organization committed to promoting the health and welfare of all senior horses from a holistic perspective.

Rehab Tools for the Senior, Distressed or Dissociated Horse

24 thoughts on “Rehab Tools for the Senior, Distressed or Dissociated Horse

  • December 2, 2018 at 7:27 pm

    First of all Mary…I so appreciate you writing all this for us to read. I think it will be well received in this LTYH group. So many things you wrote were powerful and brave and perfect. I wish all senior horses could have so much dignity and respect shown to them in there older retirement years. I mean of course it would be great if all creatures could have this at all time…but as we all know…in this human influenced world …it’s not likely. I know I am guilty of this also. I do however try very hard to give my horses as much say about there care as I can. I had a horse …who was my first horse ….he was rescue ( although he clearly rescued me) a little over 10 years ago. He needed a lot of devotion from me ( special feeding…due to bad teeth) to live his best life and he was worth every moment we devoted to each other. After 7 years ( we think he was well in his 30s) I put my Big Acea down after many months of him telling me he was tired and ready to go. He wanted to go easily without struggle and drama. He had shown me in the winter he could no longer get up when it was wet. I did not want him to give up …I just wasn’t ready….so he obliged me until summer…when he came to me one very peaceful Monday (my favorite day of the week) & told me I am ready it’s time to help me go. I knew he was so tired because he had quit going down because getting up was just to painful of a struggle for him. It was so hard for me because he had taught me so much about so much & I loved him hard and deep. Liberty was his biggest gift he showed/helped me understand and it has changed my relationships with horses in the most profound positive ways. He would walk all the way to our mailbox 1 mile round trip…with no halter and never leave my side. He was also a horse who was ok with riding (the first few years we had him) and was very proud to do so. Even when I knew it was not in his best physical interest to be ridden he would want me to do so. I did a couple of times hop on and take him for a few minutes down the road just to let him feel that proud powerful flaunt he loved. I know some people don’t think horses should ever be ridden & with some horses I agree because they despise it…but for him …you could just feel the pride he felt. One of my favorite last memories was him getting to take my 30-40lb neighbor girl for a ride. He was so proud and I swear they were both just beaming. He really was everything to me and even in his passing…I believe he timed his choice of when to go…
    so I would have the opportunity to have Dreamer come into my life and help fill the whole in my heart I had after his passing. Dreamer is also a Care Taker horse and has so much of Big Acea in his soul. Mary you have warmed my heart hearing your experiences with the horses. Each horse and human is here to teach us and you have definitely taken this deeply and it’s wonderful that you are willing to share. I have unfortunately had a big set back with Dreamer…as he foundered in February due to my over feeding him. He is recovering amazingly and is doing great…but getting the weight off him ( he is most likely IR) has been hard. I believe in free choice hay but even with tested low starch/sugar grass hay he was not losing weight. So I have had to limit him and my other horses to get them all to a healthier weight. Now my new horse Buck is starting to crib & I believe its because of limiting his forage. I try and spread there hay around 2-3 acres so it mimics grazing and all 4 can move and no one can hoard the hay. With slow feeder hay nets the fast eaters just end up getting more and then taking from the others and Dreamer is lead horse so he would still end up with more. It’s such a hard balancing act. Now the green grass is back as I am in California and I am scared to death of Dreamer foundering again. I have been smart grazing so far. Limited daytime grazing and on cold nights/sunny days no grazing after 10am. Hoping this will work but very scared. I do feed California trace minerals along with extra copper & zinc and magnesium I also add 1 Tbsp of salt and 1/4 cup ACV w the mother added to about 1/2 lb of Timothy grass pellets and was doing 1/4 cup fresh ground flax and Vitamin E but now that the green grass is back I will stop those. I also feed EM1 probiotic a few times a week. I know I have gone a bit off topic but ….Any advise about any of this is greatly appreciated…as I have never dealt with founder or cribbing so it’s new to me and very scary. ✌🏼❤️🐴

    • December 2, 2018 at 9:40 pm

      Michelle, thank you for your comments. Horses are so all-encompassing in life and in death. They teach us so much and take us to the edge of our knowledge on a regular basis, and we find what works to the best of our ability for each particular horse. I am glad that Big Ace had you, and that you gave him your best right to the end, mini rides and all.

      Founder and cribbing. Wow. Two big issues to be dealing with at the same time in two different horses. I look at both as information from the horse on what they need. When Dreamer foundered due to you overfeeding him, can you define what overfeeding looked like? What was he eating and what was the weather when he foundered in Feb?

      Nutritionist, Juliet Getty has the best info on feeding overweight horses so they lose weight while still honoring their physiology of needing food at all times in their digestive tract. It looks like you may have tried something like this already in feeding low sugar free choice hay. Did Dreamer ever have a moment without access to forage, even if only for 1 minute when you were feeding the free choice hay and he wasn’t losing weight? How many days did you try the free choice low sugar hay?

      If you haven’t already seen this article she wrote on the topic, here it is:

      There’s also a facebook page called the Mini Ha Ha Horse Haven in New Zealand ( where the woman there rehabs laminitic minis and ponies with great success. Some of her minis are so sensitive that even ground flax can cause a laminitic episode, but for others who are recovering from laminitis, their body can handle the flax. Go figure. It really depends on each mini’s body. is another resource for information on dealing with grass affected horses. Here’s some info for help for overweight horses:

      Regarding the cribbing, is Buck a hard keeper? It is challenging to manage horses with different needs. It makes sense to me that restricting forage can cause some horses to crib. On a physiological level, restricting forage is stressful to a horse’s system. Their stomach is always secreting acid whether there is food in there or not.

      I’ll wait to hear your response to the questions before I say more. Thank you for asking.

      • December 3, 2018 at 8:47 am

        Mary…thanks for all the links🙂 it is very appreciated that you would take the time to give me your thoughts and try and help me. I know we all have busy lives so it means a lot to me😊

        I have read a lot on nutrition and grass safety and founder including some of the links you provided.

        I will start with Buck. Yes he is an easy keeper…all 4 of our herd is. He mostly only cribs when I bring him off the 12 acres into the 1/2 acre with mostly no grass paddock. He’s not super compulsive about it but does do it. I have also seen him do it directly after his dinner mash? That’s what makes me think ulcers? He was my neighbors horse for about 4 months and before that I believe he came from a stall boarding situation. He is 8 1/2 and a big strapping QH. He was ribby when my neighbors brought him home but then he had 10 acres all to himself and he got really heavy. Even on the dry brown grass…with no other feed …except there were a lot of sugar treats Involved that her young niece would feed him by the bagful in very short time spans😩 when she would visit.

        How he became part of our family is….He ended up with extreme scratches/leg crud that got infected. So I brought him over every few days and Dr him up…and he was a statue. My neighbors are not very horsey so they didn’t realize/notice all this was happening. He was so appreciative of my attention and showed/told me how much he wanted to become part of our herd! He didn’t work out for my neighbors (so good for us) so he was able to eventually become a permanent addition to our family. I cleared up his legs but other skin troubles continued through the summer ….(not sure he was ever exposed to all the bugs…he might of been blanketed/sheeted) …..but with flax and herbs and no sugar treats he has completely healed and his coat & weight looks good. He has recently showed me he does not need extra magnesium (in addition to CalTrace) like I give to the other boys. So I have taken that out of his diet. I have also added slippery elm powder to see if it helps? I know letting him graze 24/7 would be ideal but right now we are having cold nights and sunny days so I know the grass (even though very short..still) is very dangerous from 10am to 10pm.

        That brings us to Dreamer. Yes I was doing everything wrong with Dreamer. I had added alfalfa to his diet…I was using a boat load of carrots …for our one on one sessions together and feeding him two daily mashes that were way to big…along with unlimited grazing. I just didn’t see how fat he was becoming? He is so elegant and such a fancy energetic mover and he always just looked like a big muscle horse to me. I am somewhat new to horses. Only 10 years so it’s been a big learning curve to understand and try and get things right for all the different needs. With Big Acea he needed a lot of special feeding and I just got in that habit. Of course the horses love it so I just continued on even after he was gone. Not realizing how much harm I was really doing. With Dreamer I believe it was a perfect storm. A Very aggressive trim …because I thought he was getting rock sensitive from my lack of trimming (not understanding it was laminitis) so then I over did it. He was seriously rock crushing when I got him…he is an Arabian with amazing hooves…but I know the breed is also at high risk of obesity. So he had become fat as a tick with fat pads everywhere. (I realize now) Then the grass was at its most dangerous with cold nights and super sunny warm days and his hooves paid the price of my ignorance & he full blown foundered. I put him on the ECIR emergency diet and along with some herbs …put him in the 1/2 acre paddock and we scraped all the grass out with our tractor. Then with help from a very knowledgeable Barefoot trimmer in my area he made a mostly quick recovery. (In regards to founder anyway) Don’t get me wrong it was 2 months of hell for him…and I cried everyday and went to a very dark place inside myself …but we both came through it and it has taught me so much and I have forgiven myself. Now I am struggling with honoring my and their …huge need for freedom of space and movement with keeping him losing weight and staying healthy. I believe horses should have as much space as humanly possible but because of my error with him I need to make sure I don’t put him through that again. Because as you probably know…once they founder they are at higher risk of doing it again. The green grass has just come back to us here in California so I am trying to figure new ways of managing them that honors us all. I can not just lock him up….it just isn’t me or him🙁…but at the same time I can’t let him founder again. He has done ok with the ground flax but I know I can stop that …now that he has access to green grass part of the time. I am hoping the smart grazing continues to be ok for him. If needed I could eventually do a track system but it just seems so structured and not organic in regards to movement…but if that is what he ends up needing then so be it…it’s better then no movement. His weight is much better and most fat pads are gone but he is still not as lean as he could be. I think he is what they call an air fern. He did have more weight to lose then the other horses so I know it takes time. But we are getting close to a year since this happened and he really should be at his ideal weight by now and he’s just not there. Exercise I know is a crucial part of keeping weight and laminitis in check….but it’s very hard to honor a horses choices and also force exercise…again a huge balancing act. It’s one of the reasons I was excited to take Buck into our family because him and Dreamer used to romp around and run quite a bit….but now that they’re so familiar with each other there’s not a lot of that even though there is still….constant movement. The good part is it seems so far he is not highly sensitive to sugars. Although I know that can change as he ages…he is 14 right now and will be 15 in February. I think I might try and go back to safe grass hay slow feeder bags ..I know it’s important they never run out (in order for them to start to self regulate) but him over eating and putting any weight on is just not what he needs. Also hay bags just don’t create the movement spreading the hay around does? I also don’t want to separate the herd. Herd life is also not something I am willing to take away from them. Well I think this is mostly answering your questions and then some😂…again thanks for your support. ✌🏼❤️🐴

        • December 3, 2018 at 9:42 am

          Mary…I just noticed a lot of wood chewed in the back of my enclosure/barn. I looked up the difference in wood chewing and cribbing. This is all so new to me. It looks as if Buck is wood chewing not cribbing. I have never heard him make any noise…so I guess it’s wood chewing…didn’t realize there was a difference? So even though he was on 2-3 acres last night he chewed a lot ? Like I said the grass is super short still as it has just started to grow. Just wanted to update you since this is new info for me ✌🏼❤️🐴

          • December 3, 2018 at 8:36 pm

            Michelle, Thank you for all the information. I have a few thoughts, but please don’t so something just because I said it. Make sure it resonates with you and your horses. Finding just what works for each horse can be a bit of trial and error, and you already have some of that in your corner. So keep going with it.

            1. You’ve been through founder once, and now you know the signs to look for and you’ve made changes to Dreamer’s diet. I would have confidence in that. It doesn’t sound like he’s so ultra-sensitive that he foundered on grass alone, and he was giving you clues before he actually foundered. Yes, still be aware of the best times to let him graze if you do, but grass is not evil. Having said that, I do understand the fear of grass once a horse has foundered. And I understand that some horses are so sensitive that they can not tolerate it at all. Since there were other things you were feeding at the time of the founder in addition to grass and you’ve since changed those, then the likelihood of founder again on just grass, especially when you are monitoring is much lower.

            2. I understand the conundrum of movement, tracks, no grass, free-choice low sugar hay, being in a herd, etc. There is no easy answer here. My bottom line premise is if I want a horse to lose weight I want them to have some kind of low-sugar hay/forage in front of them at all times. Even if it means they don’t lose weight (which in the long-term, which might be months, from the science, they will). I would rather have a horse with too much weight with low sugar hay available all the time, than a thinner horse with periods of time with no food. The periods of time with no food the body sees as starvation even if our human eye doesn’t see it. It also leaves gaps of no food in the digestive track which leaves the horse more susceptible to twisting an intestine a plump intestine is much more difficult to twist than an empty one.

            3. Regarding the wood chewing. Yes, very different than cribbing. I would lean toward something in the diet/mineral supplement is lacking and the horse is trying to get it from the wood. However, there could possibly be more nuances to it than just that. But that is where I would start. You also said you see it when he’s not able to be out on pasture. That’s an interesting observation and one piece of the puzzle. Another thought that occurs to me is that horses will eat woody plants on purpose and one side benefit is that it does wear their incisors. Maybe dental issue? Maybe mineral issue? Maybe boredom from not being able to be out on pasture 24/7? Maybe combo of all of the above?

            4. Regarding weight, a holistic vet gave me a good piece of advice when Soleil came. She said, he’s half mustang, let him have a rounder, stockier build than Carro. I always checked Soleil’s neck, made sure the crest was soft and I could move it. Being a mustang he’s going to have a crest, I just didn’t want it to ever get hard because that would mean we would be going down the laminitis/founder road. Now if Carro ever got a crest, that would be bad. It’s just not part of his body type, so if it appeared I know we’d be going down the laminitis/founder road. I’m not completely clear on the builds of each of your horses, but do allow them some space to be who they are.

            5. Regarding exercise, I like to take my horses for walks. I get the halters and asks who wants to go. One will always come over. The other doesn’t want to until he sees that we really are leaving, and then he comes over too. So there’s no force in there. I also find places on the walks were they can eat a variety of plants and we visit the neighbor horses so there’s something in the walk itself that they enjoy.

            6. How many months did you try the free-choice low-sugar hay?

            7. What’s in Buck’s dinner mash that he chews wood after it? How long has he been on his current food? If a horse’s gut is out of whack from being fed grain, etc. it can take a couple years for it to fully heal itself on the new appropriate diet. With Carro he was on the new diet for a couple of years and was still cribbing some. I stuck with the new food because I knew it was the healthiest thing for him, and trusted that he would be able to heal his own gut over the next couple of years, and that’s what he did. Yes, people even tried to tell me he had ulcers. He probably did from all the grain in his old diet. But I didn’t want to scope him and then give a vet medication. I wanted full healing from the inside out, so that is why I approached it from a nutritional perspective.

            Good luck. You are doing a good job listening to your horses and tweaking as you go. You are allowed to be a human and make mistakes. Hindsight is always 20/20, and it’s impossible to know everything before it happens. Your horses are very luck to have you willing to go down this road of the unknown. And Jini gave some great ideas below.

        • December 3, 2018 at 5:44 pm

          Michelle I totally get what you’re saying about the Paddock Paradise, track system being really structured and not wanting to take away the free, organic movement of the herd. I’ve been thinking about this puzzle for a few years now and at the same time watching the paths/tracks that the herd makes.

          Seems to me the PP idea is structured around preserving grass areas for them to graze and also being economical with fencing. BUT if we looked at it a different way and we tracked up the land according to the paths the herd has already chosen/made… That would preserve their movement a lot better. Also making the track up to 20 feet wide in places so it doesn’t feel like just one narrow track. I wonder if that could deliver the best of both worlds.

          Another tip for the hay is to get below 10% if you can and get 1st cut (coarser so more silica to grind their teeth better and also supports hooves). For many years I was feeding 6% hay. I’ve also noticed that my new wildies have addressed their protein deficiency (I could tell by how rabid-dog they were about the alfalfa), so now I only feed half a bale of alfalfa split among 11 horses. So they still get that complete amino acid profile, but I’m not overfeeding beyond their needs.

          The other thing that occurs to me – and I know you already know this – is to look at the mirror gift here for you. With Makah’s shoulder injury, that was all about a process/mirror for Guliz. She owned it, she looked into herself and sat in dialogue with him about the parts of herself that were being triggered. Those were the parts asking to come into greater wholeness. How did I know his injury had nothing to do with me? Because I had zero anxiety around his injury. Most of the time I forgot he was injured! That’s how non-triggered I was. After he finished walking the journey with Guliz, he and Kaliah got me to put his shoulder back in the socket. Just like that. And he’s completely fine now. The horse holds the injury, illness, behaviour only as long as needed. Once the physical, emotional and spiritual messages are received and actioned, the horse moves to wholeness.

          So turn inward, look at your own relationship to food and eating: rewards, scarcity, permission, abundance, protection etc. Look at your childhood and also what’s happening now. Use mind/body therapies like EFT Tapping, hypnotherapy, somato-emotional release craniosacral, etc. As you heal these parts of yourself, you’ll be amazed what happens with your horses. Much love xox

          • December 3, 2018 at 8:40 pm

            Thank you Jini for the ideas. I can’t wait to see the video of Makah’s healing of his shoulder. One question, what do you mean by 6% hay? Do you mean 6% sugar? or 6% protein? Thank you.

  • December 4, 2018 at 4:31 pm

    Jini & Mary

    Jini ….Our land as you know is much different then yours. It’s very open with no thick brush only old growth oaks. So they don’t have any structured paths. They just mill around the acreage in a different way each day and also seasons affect where and the way they cover the land. I am not completely opposed to a track just not the way I wanted the land to be. We Ike it open for many reasons…dirt bikes…cleaning fallen branches ….we play baseball for Easter …and we have a huge egg hunt that everyone loves. If I put in a track (even a moveable one) it will mess with the Feng shui and function of ease with the land….and also really lose some of the appeal we love about it. Again …for the horses I will do it…just don’t want to have to.

    Not sure I understand the food thing with reflection to me ? and how it relates to the horses. I do have some weird things with food that revolves around my brother…when we were young …he was a bully …and it was just the two of us…so we divided the sweet treats…but there was anxiety about it….I am not sure how it applies/relates…I will have to think on it? I was never deprived/hungry growing up and had plenty to eat….my weight now is middle of the road…not real heavy not real lean. I do have a compulsive need to be first in line when food functions are structured that way…so I do see I have a few things to sort out when it comes to food? I guess I am wondering do you feel like everything that happens with the horses is a message to us…in some way? Sometimes I feel it is…and I can clearly see the msg but other times I just can’t make the connection? I know each soul is a connection of energy but at the same time individual so I guess I get a bit lost in it?

    I am feeling very perplexed and defeated as I write this. As Dreamer is showing lameness again after our jog yesterday afternoon….it was an attempt to keep me & him moving/exercising without overdoing his grazing. I am not sure if it triggered/ aggravated laminitis that might of already been coming on? The good news is he’s not rocking back yet? Another possibility is…if he might of got a stone bruise as I didn’t boot him, because a few days ago when we were out on a ride his boot twisted…for the first time ever…..(didn’t notice until we got back🙁) so I figured he might like our outing better w/o boots….as to not bother any part of his hoof that might of got irritated ?
    He didn’t seem to show any sensitivity on the rocks and he was mostly in the softer dirt along side the road, but he might of got a stone bruise ? Or maybe he has an abscess brewing? He never did abscess from the founder…and my trimmer was amazed? It’s been almost a year so it seems weird it would happen now? But might be unrelated? I know all there hooves have just gone from dry and rock hard to moist and soft with all the rain we just got in the last couple of weeks…so probably not the best idea to go without his boots😫
    It’s just so confusing!! Every time I think I got it and I am doing what’s best for the horses …shit goes sideways! I have taken him off the grazing and he is in the dirt 1/2 acre paddock that includes there shelter. He is moving but not a lot…he doesn’t really have the tin soldier walk he did when he foundered but he looks sore and he’s laying down longer then normal. The bad part is if it is an abscess I know movement is helpful in getting them to pop…so keeping him confined would be the wrong answer…but if it’s laminitis he needs to be off all grazing. I guess time will tell and hopefully help me see/ feel/know the correct path. Just so frustrated.

    Buck is doing good with the wood chewing as I am letting him stay out to graze and Bullet is keeping Dreamer company. Banner is floating between both. I think in an attempt to help them all lose weight his forage was to low…so I am sure that was exasperating the issue….so I am also implementing 24/7 hay bags again. Hoping there weight does not go up. I also think Mary might be on to something with the teeth as Buck loses a lot of pellets as he eats his dinner mash. He was done in April by our NBDentist…so I kept thinking why…..but maybe something is not right. I will schedule her to come out and check him out?

    Again thanks for all the input and support. I am hanging in …trying to keep healing love/ energy in my heart. ✌🏼❤️🐴

    • December 4, 2018 at 5:13 pm

      Just wanted to say Real quick…I had an epiphany…right after I wrote this and sent it.
      I could always just put a track around there back 2-3 acres. Really don’t know why I never thought of this before…such a obvious solution? Not really sure why it never dawned on me? Thanks for all of you being my sounding board. Sometimes it just helps to write/talk/feel it out. I lat east feel a bit of hope about the future way I can manage them if Dreamer ends up not tolerating any green…with still providing some space and not altering the main part of the land. ✌🏼❤️🐴

      • December 4, 2018 at 9:26 pm

        Sounds like a great idea. Congratulations! Keep listening. Right when it seems all is hopeless, solutions come out of nowhere.

      • December 5, 2018 at 10:12 pm

        Brilliant! And also, don’t be afraid to put members of the herd over a fence from one another from time to time. As long as you’ve got one horse in with him – you can open the gate and see who wants to go. They may rotate being Dreamer’s companion – that’s what mine did through the wildie integration and Makah’s injury. They clearly asked to come in and out of the segregated area. They may even enjoy the variety 🙂

    • December 4, 2018 at 9:20 pm

      Michelle, One more thought occurred to me. Hay pellets have a very high feed utilization, meaning horses will gain weight on them. For the seniors I rehab, that is a good thing. For easy keepers, not good. For the easy keepers, if I needed to get them to eat a mineral supplement then I might put it with a cup of pellets, but that would be it.

    • December 10, 2018 at 12:30 am

      Also Michelle, trust I answered your question in this week’s post – see the Horse as Mirror section:

      It may apply to your situation, it may not. Just an invitation to feel into things and see if there’s a gift there for you.

      Common things I’ve seen related to weight/eating issues are:

      – Asking your body to do too much, be responsible for too much, overloading with work, commitments etc. This causes the body to armor on a layer of protection – just in case you crash.

      – Abuse issues in the past – again, fat is a layer of protection

      – Scarcity; either trauma in the past and/or belief that life is hard, you have to scrabble and the fear that there is not enough. So your metabolism slows down and you pack on extra, just in case.

      – Belief that “I am not enough” so you are seeking for ways to make yourself feel better, to bolster yourself up. This striving to ‘be enough’ can also get projected onto children or animals in our care. “If I can just meet their every need and be a ‘good mom’ THEN I can exhale/relax.” Except, of course, that never happens cause their needs never end 🙂

      Did you ever do this tapping session? You can do it for Dreamer and then you too will automatically “borrow the benefit”:

      much love xoxo

  • December 5, 2018 at 9:55 am

    Mary, Michelle, Jini – I’ve read your post and all the comments with so much interest. I deeply appreciate the perspective of trusting our horses to tell/show us what they do/don’t need.

    I have been here on my 5-acre farm in Kitsap County for 6 months. No equines yet (but kittens!!) though neighbor horses uses my upper pasture for much of the summer. I have talked with the farm planner from our county conservation district, been reading, talking with people, and listening to the land.

    Just as animals choose us, this farm chose me. As a new farm owner, I am going slow as I listen for what wants to hapoen and who wants to be here. Another way to saw it is that I magnetized this farm and the kittens, so trust that the equines will come that way too. That is a new way for me to do it, but I like it!

    I go to lots of farms doing bodywork/massage with horses and see all kinds of situations.

    I am reading the paddock paradise book and thinking about doing that. Was talking with a friend who keeps minis and pointed out that cowboys relied on horses for their livelihood, and let the horses roam in large pastures. Not saying we should do as they did, but simplicity really appeals to me!

    And if I have learned anything from working with horses doing bodywork, it us that they are all individuals as this discussion confirms.

    It looks as if the first equines joining our farm family will be donkeys – Poitou donkeys to be exact. Two beautiful girls. As I look as my pastures, knowing grass and mud aren’t good for a species that evolved on the desert, I see cross fencing and gravel in my future. Not yet sure which parts will be theirs.

    No big point to make here, just lots of appreciation for the discussion and approach.

    • December 5, 2018 at 2:51 pm

      Barbara, thank you for your comments. It will be fascinating to see what happens for you with your farm. I remember hearing a story from Diedre West something about how she needed to clear an area for an arena, but she’d have to chop down trees to do it. So she :talked” to the trees about it. They were all fine with it except one. The one she left became the perfect shade spot in the summer. There was much more detail to the story, but this was the general idea. I suppose the animals can tell you what they need, and so can the land.

      Are you familiar with TRM Rescue Inc. on facebook? She rescues donkeys and has extensive knowledge about how they differ from horses, more than the average vet. She is on the cutting edge when it comes to veterinary care for some of the tough cases she takes on. So cutting edge that the vets don’t know because there is so little literature on donkeys, and they work together developing treatment plans through trial and error as they go. It might be a resource for you, even if you’re not doing rescue, as you embark on your donkey journey.

      I look forward to hearing how it all unfolds!

      • December 5, 2018 at 11:02 pm

        Thanks for the TRM suggestion, Mary. I will check her out. And thanks for reminding me of Diedre’s beautiful story! Sometimes – often? – there needs to be space for wonderful things to emerge.

    • December 5, 2018 at 10:14 pm

      Yes Barbara, I too LOVE your approach – I need to slow down and do more of that!

      And great donkey resource Mary! I will keep that in mind in case anyone asks.

      • December 5, 2018 at 10:44 pm

        Thank you, Jini. On the donkey resource she lost a donkey right around the same time Prima died. The donkey died because they were creating the rehab process as they went and didn’t know a simple piece of info that ended up costing the donkey its life. No one had ever tried this kind of rehab so no one knew exactly what they would need until it was too late. To see her try, fail, and then pick up the pieces to be ready for the next one with more tools for the next time was really inspiring.

        • December 6, 2018 at 10:52 pm

          I would love to come visit both of you – just how to find the time…! xox

  • December 5, 2018 at 3:43 pm

    Mary, thanks so much for your beautiful, detailed stories and your wide-open (and yet somehow systematic in the best way) approach to love, life, and the needs and desires of other beings…

    I love how you remind us all to relax, let go of agendas we don’t even know are agendas, and follow the horses’ lead. I think we all preach this to some degree but like any good lesson there are so many layers to learn and integrate. I’ve just seen my own young pup through a urinary system failure, who like Prima needed the space and opportunity to be herself, to live her life no matter how short, and to be held in dignity and actual love – rather than me trying to prove my love by doing invasive things to her to make myself feel better.

    I also love the practicality of Aikido that you pull in here – making simple choices to get ourselves out of the way of danger often fly in the face of horsemanship dogma. But in the end, they can be the easiest, most respectful – and most effective – choice!

    And I really appreciate how you have woven in all your learning over the years, diverging when you reach the end of what works for you – again, I think many of us have learned or are learning to do this, but your confidence and steady voice in the matter is truly, truly encouraging and calming.

    And I love, love, love seeing the change in the Old Ones! 36 ain’t too shabby, Carro…

    Much love to you and the herd.


    • December 5, 2018 at 10:35 pm

      Kesia, thank you for your comments and kind words. Aikido really was the game changer for me in learning how to let go of agendas, and just be, and then to be able to throw a 200 lb. man from that place was mind boggling. Yet, I just did it, many times, so even though my brain didn’t understand, my body did. That experience over and over in aikido of the power of just being and being open to the unknown and having the skills to take care of myself no matter what is going on around me, really set the stage for everything I’ve experimented with in rehabbing horses.

      I also remember as a child learning how to water ski, and my mom told me, “you never have to be afraid of falling, and you don’t have to hang on for dear life. Just let go of the rope and you’ll slowly sink into the water peacefully like you’re going down in an elevator.” That idea that we “have to get back on the horse immediately” or they win is an adversarial viewpoint. I much prefer, “oh, you’re afraid. I can certainly understand why.” And then I make sure I’m in a place where the horse can experience fear and not inadvertently hurt me. With me then in a safe place, I’m in a much more effective position to help direct the horse, if that’s what unfolds.

      So sorry to hear about your little pup and navigating system failure. It sounds like she died? May I ask how that unfolded? After the experience with Prima, I call life and death a mystery. I don’t fully understand it, especially when it’s not neat and tidy, nor how I want it. What I do know is that I’m called to love in the moment. The week leading up to Prima’s death I instinctively knew it would be a long shot for her to be able to pull this rabbit out of the hat, even though she had already defied the odds on more than one occasion. But she was still showing up, so I did too. A couple evenings in a row I made some extra trips to be with her doing “nothing”. Earlier in the week, she’d find me to get a massage. Later in the week as she was feeling less well, I’d find her under the trees with Carro. I’d pull my “tricks” out of my pockets (flower essences, TTouch wraps, yucca-the herb, and just me and my bare hands and all the various forms of body work I’ve picked up over the years), to see what she would like. At one point she fell asleep standing, with Carro on one side her and me on the other, and I just prayed over her. Two days later, the morning she was dying while I was waiting for the vet to return, it was just me and her. It was that moment when I realized that there was absolutely nothing that I could do to fix this, and the only thing that I had to give was myself, and that was enough. Little by little I keep having more experiences where it’s not the fixing, but rather the “being with” that makes all the difference. It’s the “being with” where the other animal, or person, or whoever, is fully seen in the moment, and that is a connection like no other. It is not warm and fuzzy, but profound in its own way.

      I too love seeing the change in the old ones. I never tire of seeing the transformation, and then get to interact with them in all their innate horseness. Forget about “training” the horse. I’m asking them to “train” me in their ways.

      Thank you to you and Jini, and everyone else who puts their experience out there, no matter how on the fringe. It gives me inspiration to speak my truth as well and brings me to a deepening understanding of life and horses.


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