California Riding Magazine • May, 2008

Ask the Alpha Mare
Consistency is the key to healing a horse.

by Kathryn Kincannon-Irwin

Dear Alpha Mare,

Can you offer any tips for working with a mare who was found in a field very emaciated and starving? Sadly, she was found with other horses, but they were all dead. This mare was initially taken to a sanctuary for six to 12 months and now is with us as an EAL project. She is being handled and groomed daily, has been introduced to leading and we are doing our best to massage all the millions of knotty lumps off of her. Any advice would be gratefully received.

- A Helping Hand in Clayton

Dear A Helping Hand,

This is a tragic tale – a horror of the human condition that can’t help but spur a person to outrage and a sincere desire to right a grievous wrong. That said, when it comes to people and horses I have seen too many times how the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and thus feel the need to caution an instinct to immediately run to the rescue without fully realizing what may do more harm than good.

Here’s what I mean. This mare, more than anything, needs a human to assist rather than hinder her healing process, both emotionally and physically. This is a taller order than many people would realize. It would be natural for an equine caregiver to project how they would feel about going through what this mare has been through, without ever stopping to consider it from her perspective. Such well-meaning ignorance, to this mare, is a far cry from bliss. Empathizing with starvation and the trauma of living with dead horses doesn’t necessarily translate into truly knowing how to be of service to this horse’s fragile state of body and shell-shocked state of mind.

How do you get off on the right foot with this mare? First and foremost, recognize her reality is counter-intuitive to your own. She is not looking for sympathy and peppermints. She is not looking for you to just be nice to her. She is looking for the comfort of a safe environment under the wing of a worthy protector. While trust may most likely be out of the question for some time to come – after all, she has endured a prey animal’s worst nightmare – she will still be looking to find someone to count on, be it another horse or a human being.

It’s important to remember that horses feel the effect of the world they live in 24/7, and as such most of them really don’t want to be in charge of their own destiny. They would love nothing more than to find someone to take such a huge burden of responsibility off their own shoulders. Contrary to a predator cutting a swaggering swath through life, they, in their constant sense of vulnerability, are looking for someone to look out for them – not the other way around. In the case of illness or injury, or in this case, the weakened state of starvation and grief, you can imagine this need is even more pronounced.

Psychologists tell us there are five stages to the grieving process: denial, anger, depression, bargaining and acceptance. Since horses live very much in the moment, I have yet to see an emotion akin to either denial or bargaining. They just don’t ponder the past and the future the way we do by feeling sorry for themselves and asking “why or what if?” But as for anger, depression and acceptance, all three are very much a part of a horse’s emotional repertoire. They will rear their ugly heads and twirl their tails in anger, drop their heads into a glazed-over stare of checked-out despondency. And, yes, bow and show with attentive eyes and ears, with blowing, sighing and the shaking off of stress, show that they are more than agreeable to our ways with them. These emotions, along with hundreds of others, can and do shift and change in the blink of a big, brown eye.

Keen Awareness

The key is being aware of how horses express their feelings about us with body language and being aware and able to read them correctly. That and recognizing how crucial being understood is to her right now. From there you can begin the process of making your way into her heart by showing her she will feel good with you any time you are with her.

To do this requires language skills and fluency on your part. Horses of course don’t speak with our words, but they speak volumes in their own body language. If you know how to “read” this mare (and you can be certain she is reading you!), she is telling you in her own way, with every move she makes – every gesture, every posture – what she is feeling every moment. What you need to remember is that her “feelings” are never random. Her behavior will be a direct response to you or the person who is in her presence. Making sure your movements are respectfully correct around her encourages mutual respect in return and will ensure you can get a true read of how she is feeling about her life at that moment.

Then, with your help, she will be on the road to recovery. When you know you aren’t the cause of distressful body language, then you will able to tell what she wants and doesn’t want, needs and doesn’t need. I’m certain she is telling you these things in every action she takes already; whether it’s turning away from you and letting you know she prefers her own company to that of companionship, flipping her head or swishing her tail in annoyance over something you or another horse or human may have done, glazing over and staring like a zombie in despondency if something just doesn’t make sense or wringing her head and/or tail in anger when it all gets overwhelming. All she needs now is for you to not unknowingly cause her any more undue stress and to decipher her signals and signs and make sense of them. If you understand her language well enough, and listen to her fully, you will have what it takes to respond properly to her cues and ongoing dialogue with efficacy and thus truly be of service.

Be Real

Here’s a mantra for you: don’t just be nice to your mare, be real with her. She will have contempt for anyone who coddles and coos but doesn’t have boundaries. She will ignore and begin to shut down with a person who is confusing. In her mind, you are only of value to her well-being if your body language makes sense and is user-friendly, every second she is with you. She is bound to put you and every other human through their paces to determine who’s out for their own agendas and who is truly there for her – she knows her very life depends upon it. In her mind, consistent assertive, but non-threatening, body language around her translates literally into integrity. Only after she sees that you pay attention to her every move, and respond like a better horse when she throws any challenging body language at you, as well as acknowledge any passivity and kindness from her respectfully, will she grant you both respect and trust.

Eventually, with consistency, she will feel you have earned your awareness stripes. Only then will she be able to exhale and rest, knowing that with you she can now do what she needs to do to heal and regain her health – in body, mind and spirit.