KG wasn’t in. His immaculately groomed jet black coat lay over a sculpture of musculature, tendon, ligament and bone so finely formed it was as though he was the final master piece of a sculptor’s life work.
And in a way that is exactly what he was. Generation after generation of KG’s ancestors had been meticulously bred, trained, measured and sculpted to produce one thing: The Ultimate Racing Machine. And here he stood. But KG wasn’t in.
Despite the sculptor’s efforts, there was still a little chiseling required before the masterpiece was complete. It was during this final production stage that our paths crossed. I’ll never forget it; I expect KG will never remember it. Because KG wasn’t in.
I was a vet student at the time, it was another bright July morning and as we gathered in the yard for rounds I was fumbling around for my notepad trying to remember which cases (horses) I was supposed to be presenting.
It was always a fear inducing experience, standing in front of an audience of expert veterinarians trying to competently present a case that involved pronouncing words that, in my opinion, were best kept in their abbreviated forms. Finally, amongst the debris in my overall pocket, I managed to locate my trusty, dog eared notepad and refresh my memory: KG, 3 year old TB stallion, racing, VCE.
Phew, just the one today. It was always a relief to have just one to present at rounds, and given the number of racehorses that came through the hospital for elective upper airway surgeries, I was pretty well versed on the subject by now. I felt I’d gotten off rather lightly.
I took a deep breath as we assembled ourselves outside the first stable. The horses name on the whiteboard read: KG. The group settled and I began: “This is KG, a 3 year old thoroughbred stallion used for racing. He is in for a ventriculocordectomy. His TPR are all normal and he is due to have his operation later this morning”.
A ventriculocordectomy is the removal of the lining from the laryngeal ventricle (a hollow depression on each side of the voice box) and the removal of the vocal cord to improve and reduce the noise of airflow through the larynx (voice box) and into the lungs caused by poor tone in particular laryngeal muscles. The procedure is designed to improve performance in equine athletes, such as the racehorse.
Two of the clinicians mumbled something about running order of surgeries whilst I gave myself an internal high five for pronouncing ‘ventriculocordectomy’ correctly. The clinicians must have come to some agreement as without any further questioning the pack began to move on to the next stable. I breathed a sigh of relief, grateful to no longer be the subject of potential interrogation.
A weight lifted, I made to follow the group and as I turned I caught a glimpse of this young black stallion stood quietly in the back corner of the stable. He looked almost defeated. How funny I thought, I’d been so wrapped up in my presentation I hadn’t even noticed that from where I was standing the stable may as well have been empty.
It wasn’t until that night that I really saw KG. During the hustle and bustle of the hospital’s daily proceedings it could become all too easy for the patients to merge into one long to do list, opening up a chasm between horse and human. But as the waves of the day settled and the dark stillness of night set in, that chasm seemed to shrink and reveal a glimpse of the other’s world.
It was my turn, along with a fellow student, to perform night checks and as we crept our way silently round the sleeping yard, I approached the whiteboard reading KG. Tentatively peeking over the door, so as not to disturb, I saw him for the first time. Not ‘a 3 year old racehorse in for a ventriculocordectomy with a normal TPR’. But a sentient being, with thoughts, feelings, likes and dislikes; not all that dissimilar from ourselves in the grand scheme of things. It was in that moment I caught an unforgettable glimpse of something much deeper laying cloaked beneath that immaculate ebony coat.
KG stood in the far corner of the stable, face to the wall, silently weaving(1). I slowly entered the stable and moving closer I watched whilst, in a trance like state, he shifted his weight from one foreleg to the other and back again. With every shift of weight to the right, the rhythmic sway of his head made contact with the wall, grazing the delicate skin above his eye. Over and over and over. I stood watching. It was clear that KG wasn’t in.
But where had he gone? What had caused him to leave, to dissociate? Had he ever enjoyed life? What had put an end to that?
Despair slowly seeped through my body as it dawned on me that the final stage of sculpting had left this masterpiece, quite literally, without a voice. What has the cost of creating The Ultimate Racing Machine had on the very soul that resides within its meticulous form? The answer stood, with its head to the corner, swaying before me.
Something about that moment cracked a fault line down the center of my equestrian façade. Perhaps it was the sheer force of the naked truth, illuminated by night fall; nowhere to hide, just a self-harming horse to witness. Or perhaps I was just quite simply ready to see what I had not been willing to before. I expect it was a well-designed combination of the two.
That fault line began a painful but essential process of dismantling the mental armour that dictated how I related to horses. In an interesting series of choices and events, that tested my willingness to walk the walk when it came to viewing the horse as an equal, I was wrenched from my comfortable position in the traditional equestrian world, including leaving a secure veterinary career, to find myself sat in a field with three horses, none of which wanted to be with me, promising to honour their choices and treat them as equals in a bid to understand who they really were and how we could connect in a way that honoured that. I wondered, what would the equestrian world look like if we really acknowledged and honoured the importance of their emotional and social needs, alongside the physical? And how could a veterinary care system integrate these elements to care for horses more fully?
Before this moment, my life had largely been defined by two parallels: horses and an ever deepening journey into mindfulness. During this period these two parallels began to intersect and I started to realise something fundamental about addressing the way we relate to horses. Buddhist teachings reveal to us that we must start with ourselves, in the present. We study the nature of our own minds, our own emotions and in doing so we see what ultimately contributes to, and detracts from, our well-being. So the thing is, before we can answer the above questions about equine care, we must first acknowledge the importance of these aspects in our own lives and the crucial role they play in contributing to our own health. We must begin to tend and befriend our emotions, integrate our psyches and rediscover our bodies in order to change our relationships with ourselves, each other and our horses. Without doing so we will never be able to fully address The Ultimate Racing Machine because we will not truly understand where it came from.
This led me to the world of Equine Facilitated Practice. Whilst this may sound like a niche area of work – employing horses to assist in human therapy (equine facilitated therapy/psychotherapy) and personal development (equine assisted learning)- it is a fast growing field, with diverse applications that are proving to have powerful effects. From autism, PTSD and inmate rehabilitation, to education in leadership and personal development. The list seems endless. In one recent study, Ohio State University researchers determined that spending time with horses eases symptoms of Alzheimer’s dementia.
It turns out that the horses carry within them a powerful healing ability that, if honoured and respected, has the potential to catalyse human transformation by, I believe, bringing us back to the present moment, the only place where the seeds of real change can be sown. Whilst this has incredible implications that are already being realised by practitioners globally, I am acutely aware of how horses have been ‘used’ in so many human pursuits and that, without realising, this could easily be repeated again in the world of Equine Facilitated Practice.
Angela Dunning writes in her book ‘The Horse Leads the Way’: ‘Quality must prevail over quantity, with a close eye kept on the impact on the horses at all times; we must not heal one species at the expense of the other’. I fear any attempt to do so, whether consciously or unconsciously, will dilute the innate healing effects of this powerful work and risk seeing the horse thrown aside as a ‘tool’ that no longer works.
In a strange turn of events, that sometimes make me feel like I’m in a house of mirrors, I am coming to understand that the horses themselves hold the key to unlocking a new way for us to connect with and care for ourselves, allowing us to experience and integrate all the elements that contribute to our well-being. Once we realise this for ourselves, we will have the ability to extend this care to our horses (and other animals) in a way that benefits the health and well-being of all species.
The health and well-being of our own health professionals is currently a very hot topic indeed. I find it a truly heart breaking fact that the suicide rate in the veterinary profession is nearly 4 times the national average and twice that of doctors and dentists, as cited by the British Veterinary Association. Add to that the crisis in recruitment and retention of veterinary staff and we see a very desperate picture.
The University of Nottingham School of Veterinary Medicine and Science have responded by doubling their intake of students in the next academic year. However, as Jordan Sinclair highlights in a recent Vet Times article ‘the problem in the veterinary profession is retention, not lack of new graduates; opening more vet schools, or enrolling more students at existing ones, is just turning more taps on, not plugging the leak’. As Jordan states, this is far from addressing the root of the problem, and I fear it gives out the message that individual graduates are disposable – ‘as long as half of them make it that’s ok’. But what about the rest of them? I think of all the bright, caring, dynamic and talented people who I shared my time at vet school with, many of whom are some of my closest friends. How can we begin to turn the tide and address that chilling suicide rate?
The crisis in the profession is a complex and multi-faceted one. Whilst scientific education, working environments, staffing and business structure are crucial in creating a system capable of facilitating the journey from sixth form leaver through to confident veterinary professional, there seems to be a big and ongoing leak to address when it comes to individual well-being. Although it may seem a little left field, I see huge potential for equine facilitated work to support students and professionals by developing skills in areas such as emotional intelligence to practically address emotional and mental health through experiential learning. Maybe our equine patients are the very ones that can help us move the professional work force from barely surviving to one that is thriving. Perhaps in doing so they might one day inspire enough of a shift in us to transform the way, as humans, we collaborate to deliver animal health care.
As people, we have reached a critical point in many ways and are being pushed more than ever to access our creativity to discover new methods of relating to ourselves and our world, or else continue in our old ways that no longer serve us and have become destructive. Whatever change we are trying to create, it takes a deep understanding of what has gone before in order to begin generating a real and lasting shift in a healthier direction; until then we will never truly create something new, merely an up-cycled version of a previous dysfunction.
As we are the ones responsible for what we’ve created, a clear honest non-judgemental observation of human nature is required if we are to have any real hope of effecting change. This clear seeing is what the horses offer us. Whether we have the courage to honestly look at what’s reflected in the mirror of their behaviours is a question for each of us. So maybe it’s time we gently put aside our ideas of human superiority and meet them as equals. Whether that’s in the field of Equine Facilitated Practice itself, with your own horse or in the equestrian sports and professions. Can we begin to see each horse for who they really are? Do we have the courage to surrender our egos to the possibility of a better way?
N.B. The name of the horse in this story has been changed so he remains anonymous.
The Ohio State University web access: https://news.osu.edu/caring-for-horses-eases-symptoms-of-dementia/?fbclid=IwAR3or3rbEmkUynjaCD-vSyXhFrOk2gzHOtM6igj0RfjpVE2mM-D7EVfdUD8
Dunning, Angela. The Horse Leads the Way. YouCaxton Publications, 2017.
The British Veterinary Association web access: https://www.bva.co.uk/Professional-development/Vets-TV/Veterinary-View/Mental-health-and-wellbeing-in-the-veterinary-profession/
Sinclair, Jordan. Staff Retention: double of quits? Vet Times, 2019. Web access: https://www.vettimes.co.uk/staff-retention-double-or-quits/
(1)Weaving – A stable ‘vice’ in which the horse rhythmically shifts their weight between both forelimbs whilst weaving their neck from side to side. This can lead to an apparent trance like state. It is thought to be a behavioural result of removing a social herd animal from their natural way of living.