What about the mental health of our horses?
Stress in horses can be caused by a variety of factors and circumstances. This incident, that occured several years ago, really made me aware of how important it is to keep our horses happy. To help me relate this story…
Breed: Oldenburg Imported from Denmark
Height: 15-3 hands
Job: Competitive Dressage
Hassa is a very easy going horse. He loves to work, is kind of on the lazy side but definitely a joyous ride when he gets warmed up. Kind of cheeky and opinionated. Not spooky or jumpy. LOVES to go out on trails and HATES to turn around and come home. To the extent that when I finally get him turned around he walks so slow and pokes around that it can take 3 times longer to get home! Very independent and self confident as in…. he is not herd bound AT ALL. Prefers to work alone and go out alone. Will not kick or bite but is definitely at the top of the pecking order. He is great to stable beside a nervous insecure horse because he can teach them things and keep them in line. Sugar cubes and food of any kind is a direct path to his brain and his heart. One time Hassa ran a 104 degree temperature and did not turn away from his feed just slowed down a bit. He is quite a character.
A few years ago I was competing in the California dressage circuit . My then Prix St George horse Hassa and I had a very intensive schedule. We were at a show or training almost every day for 3 months. In between events there was no place to turn horses out at the stable I was at. Trail riding was out of the question because this facility was in a populated area with no access to trails or open areas. I was so submersed in this competition mode, that all I could think about was keeping Hassa physically fit and progressing with our training every day so we could do better and better at the shows. Also I would panic over the idea that he would injure himself and thus end our competitive season early.
I was always fairly amused and bewildered at how Hassa could know that he was competing and could grow to a full 17 hands coming down center line . Even if our warm up had been not quite up to par. He loved the audience. Dont know why since I hated competing and audiences and having to do movements in a prescribed order. We really did have fun though at these first shows of the Dressage series. At first our performance improved a bit every time. But as time went on our scores got worse instead of better . The more the scores deteriorated the harder I worked myself and Hassa. I was on a mission! I had definite expectations that had to be met!
Well , as I have said before horses have a way of humbling you.
One morning I was all dressed for competition and I strode purposefully into Hassas stall ready to groom him to a high luster and conquer the world. Instead of greeting me with a nicker and his pushy way of looking for treats in my pockets and hands .he had his nose in a corner and his hind end firmly planted towards me and would not move. His ears were drooped and slightly back and his big beautiful kind eyes were narrow slits that looked at me one time sideways and then averted themselves.
He had eaten his hay and grain. His water buckets had been drunk from. I looked him all over and took his temperature. Everything was normal . I tried to tease him with some sugars and treats and he only half heartedly accepted them. I took him out and lunged him for a bit to see if he was lame or sore. Nothing. My rides that day were dull and listless and definitely forced. I was really annoyed at myself and at Hassa for letting me down.
That evening I was cleaning out his stall and he wanted no part of me. No banter or nuzzling or nibbling at my pockets. It struck me.
My horse was sick but not physically.
He was mentally tired and bored. I could even go on to say depressed. I threw his halter on and we went for a long long walk until I finally found a patch of grass in this ( parking lot of a city ) that was safe to let him graze at. I let him graze and just sat there quietly thinking and going over the last few weeks. Although the circumstances had been difficult given the places we were in, maybe I could have done things differently. I certainly did not know that Hassa would react so negatively to the lack of his weekly trail rides, his daily turn out and his open barn, where he socialized all day with his neighbors. I had not paid attention to the basic needs of my horse and the habits and characteristics of his species. I supposed if it was ok for me, then it was ok for him. Not so. And truthfully I was tired and bored of the drilling and the repetitious work I had outlined for us. I missed the early morning trail rides and the variety.
Horses will humble you.
Although this show circuit had been important to me as a goal, I had lost the fun and enjoyment and thus the satisfaction that just riding and training gave me. Hassa was not a happy horse.
The next day I packed it all up and headed home, all the way back to Utah and the wide open countryside.
I had told myself that I would complete this show circuit unless Hassa or I became ill….