Archive for March, 2010
We got the call on a Thursday, the first day of a 3-day blizzard rolling into West Michigan. There was a 3-year old stallion, stranded from a domestic dispute and he needed help quickly. A woman in crisis had to leave her home and horse. The horse’s life was in jeopardy from both weather and physical threats. Almost a year ago, my wife Ulla and I were introduced to Wishbone Pet Rescue from some old friends. We were excited to hear about their work, as our compassion for animals runs deep. Besides enjoying the companionship, of animals, we also engage them an effort to help people, through Ulla’s counseling practice, The Sundance Center.
As you might imagine, this sort of crisis moves fast. The woman had left the property, and the man was refusing to feed or care for the horse and even threatening to shoot him, if someone didn’t get him out of there, “now.” Wishbone had negotiated a “stay” for Lance until Monday. The fact that the horse was a stallion and didn’t have recent shots complicated the matter. Calls went back and forth as we worked on finding an appropriate home. Few farms are equipped to handle stallions, who must be segregated from mares.
Ulla braved the blizzard to bring him hay and water before we could transport him, but the water was freezing quickly and he was getting stuck knee-deep in muck and ice. Wishbone had rallied some volunteers to replace water when they could, but we didn’t have much time to spare.
The plan was to pick him up Saturday, and transport him to the vet for vaccinations, gelding surgery and coggins test. I was trying to prepare for anything, as early reports were that this three year old stallion, neglected in a frozen pasture, was fairly nervous about people and expressing that concern rather overtly. Hunger and fear have a way of mustering up anyone’s defense mechanisms.
Handling Lance was a bit tricky. He’d occasionally position himself defensively, ears pinned and leg cocked. Alternately, he’d allow some petting, but never looked relaxed. Ears rotating, eyes shifting, he was fearful and somewhat unpredictable. Some open-mouth gestures of biting were certainly more aggressive than the occasional, curious barnyard nip we might witness with our calm herd at home.
Leading him to the trailer, he pushed against me, creating tension in the rope and my heart-rate. A friendly trainer, along to help, skillfully organized the approach to the trailer, and after some patient teamwork and gentle pressure, Lance stepped into the trailer and everyone took a deep breath.
At the vet clinic, he unloaded clumsily, but without drama. He looked about, curiously, with wide eyes and an anxious pace. We got him into the stall with fresh bedding and a few flakes of hay. He focused intently on the hay, which he began eating. Before leaving him there overnight, I had to change his halter. None too pleased with the prospect of me pulling his head away from his “welcome to a warm stall” dinner; he showed his seriousness with bared teeth and glaring eyes. I was able to ride the storm with only slight corrections while keeping myself away from his mouth. I got some practice in, as we went through two halters before finding a fit.
It was comforting to see him warm, dry and eating. As we helped Wishbone BOD member, Susan, decide on vaccinations, we were moved by a nearby vet-customer who after hearing Lance’s story, pushed her credit card to the receptionist and paid for Lance’s shots. Tearful thanks were returned and it seemed Lance was starting to gain a cheering section, made up of people hoping for better things for his future.
We picked Lance up the following Tuesday and brought him home to our farm. His initial home was a freshly bedded stall inside the barn, within earshot of the other horses, who were at liberty to come and go in a nearby run-in. We sought to foster Lance in a restorative manner. For him to lead a productive life as a companion horse, we’d need to assess and improve his overall manners and trust of humans. This would be imperative in both finding a new home and insuring a good fit.
I’ve worked with Lance almost every day since. We started simply enough; before every feeding, I’d take him out of the stall and ask him to pick up each hoof. That progressed to actually cleaning his hooves with a pick. In a couple of days, he was offering each hoof calmly, if perhaps slightly hesitant. Confident that he was growing more calm and relaxed, I scheduled a trim with our farrier late in his first week. He stood for him well, resistance limited to one leg, seemingly related to being a little sore from surgery.
Once he mastered his hoof-picking manners, we progressed to a more sensitive area, his head and mouth. Somewhat head-shy, Lance didn’t like people messing around near his face. In a short period of time, Lance allowed me to hold my hands against his face; the next day, his mouth. In a few days, he was comfortable enough that I was able to squirt worming paste into his mouth with very little anxiety or protest.
Lance has been in our barn and pasture for three weeks now, and we’ve enjoyed being part of his transformation. A significant part of our work with Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) is engaging horse’s natural instincts and communication methods. We’re trained to observe and pick up on the multitude of non-verbal messages that horses communicate with. Through this process, I’ve observed that Lance is very present, very “horse” and extremely “talkative.” He is responsive, adapts quickly and is extremely aware of his surroundings. He has grown much more trusting of human interaction and developed quite a fan-club with his bright, soft eye and friendly demeanor.
It’s impossible to attribute his shift in health, demeanor and attitude to any one thing, but suffice it to say, that consistent care, attentive communication and a more “gelded” hormonal balance, have all served Lance well. Many have rallied to support him including a local Reiki master, offering a natural-healing approach, a neighbor offering up their large round pen for his turnout, a nearby trainer who offered insight and placement assistance and our brave farrier who showed patience and calm, further building Lance’s trust in humans with tools.
Considering his youth and history, we recommend that he receive professional training to complete the transition and engage his natural horse intelligence. Our current project is reducing his food-centric defenses, as freshly delivered hay seems to be the last consistent trigger for Lance’s protective glances.
I’m encouraged by his progress and feel I have gained personally from knowing him and engaging in raw-horse dialogue with him. He has great potential, a willing attitude, and is looking less and less like a rescued horse every day. I believe with patience and consistent natural horsemanship, Lance will make a terrific companion in his next home.
Wishbone has been tireless in their effort to gather and coordinate support for this special horse. I look forward to Lance’s placement and imagine visiting him for years to come. Thank you to all of the people that offered their assistance and support to guide Lance his next home.
Fred & Ulla operate their farm Red Horse Ranch, in Fennville, Michigan; home of Sundance Center for Personal Growth www.sundancecenter.net. Fred is also a managing partner in New Holland Brewing Company in Holland, Michigan.