Insanity Defense

According the wisdom of the Internets, the definition of insanity is repeating the same action over and over with the expectation of a different result.

This is also the definition of stupidity.

Horseman’s wisdom, meanwhile, declares that horses are creatures of habit. “Do something once, it’s a thing. Do something twice, it’s a habit.” That’s pretty much true, especially when it comes to bad habits and undesirable behaviors.

What the wisdom doesn’t add is that humans are just as bad. If not worse. And humans who train or handle or take care of horses are emphatically not exempt.

Many, in fact I would even go so far as to say most, bad or inept trainers are not evil people. They really do think they’re doing it right. They repeat the same behaviors over and over; if the horses don’t respond according to script, it’s the horses, not the method. The method can’t be wrong. Or, if the trainer does claim to be all about the horses, a kind of blindness sets in, and the horses are perceived to be Just Fine even when they’re not.

Confession time. That stupidhuman, this week, is me. I’m supposed to be this expert horse handler and barn manager. I have a barnful of generally healthy, visibly happy, independently verified well-treated horses. Good manners, too–enough to be safe with a group of strangers and horse-neophytes doing yoga in the middle of the herd.

We have had some changes of late. One of the herd left for another barn, and shortly thereafter, a new horse came in to take her place.

Change is difficult for horses. They really do prefer to run on well-marked tracks, with familiar companions and predictable routine. Public barns with high turnover tend to be high-stress situations in horse terms. Lots of ulcers, illnesses, foot abscesses, stress behaviors (such as cribbing, weaving, wood-chewing), and the like.

Wise barn management finds ways to mitigate this: steady routine, lots of individual attention, as much turnout or free time as facilities allow; and the horses may be treated with calming potions, probiotics, ulcer medications, etc. Well-managed horses learn to handle changes of personnel, and their managers devote considerable time to making sure disruptions are minimal and newcomers are integrated with care–quarantined to start (for medical as well as social reasons), then integrated slowly, with gradual changes in routine, care, and feeding.

A quiet barn with a long-established herd will tend to be much less stressed to start with, and when a member leaves or one comes in, the disruption may be minimal. But there is still disruption, because, you know, change. Social patterns will shift: if a horse leaves, the hierarchy of the herd changes, and there may be other changes as well.

Here, we sent a matriarch off to a new barn. She was the lowest horse in the herd order, very submissive, and secure in it. Her daughter was her special friend, but daughter also ran with two other young mares, and mama might then hang with the other matriarch, also a mother of multitudes, with two daughters in the herd. But younger matriarch might push the elder around, while herself being pushed around by the rest of the herd. That tended to wear on elder mare. At the new barn, she has her own space, and nobody harassing her. By all accounts, she’s enjoying her retirement.

When she left, the mares in general were unperturbed. But the stallion was somewhat on edge. Stallion instinct is to protect and guard the herd, and he had just lost a mare–not a happy situation in stallionland. He seemed to cope with it, but was just a bit more reactive to mares in heat.

And then, two weeks later, a new horse arrived. A gelding–a completely new horse, whom the herd had never met, though he is the brother of one and the nephew of two others. He’s an experienced boarding-barn hand, well known for getting along with others, but various health and social issues have meant a complete change in routine for everyone, and at least for the near term, isolation for the gelding. His own space, his own stall, his own turnout time.

Stallion was coping surprisingly well with the arrival of another male in the mix. Nonhormonal male, not offering to steal mares–there was some fussing and posturing, but little fiery stallion is, in the eyes of other horses, huge dragon horse, and big gelding deferred appropriately.

And that has all been proceeding about as expected, with occasional flurries and some slam-banging–change of seasons affects horses the way other kinds of change do, and youngest mare got the crap beaten out of her for being, basically, adolescent. Barn manager was on top of things, she thought. Mostly. A bit overwhelmed, overtired, and decision-fatigued–barn tetris with nine horses including stallion can be wearing on the brain as well as the body.

Then stallion, during warmup for a ride, misstepped, went ow-ow-ow, and came up lame. Seemed from the reactions to be a bruise. Standard protocol in such cases is to put the horse in a stall and monitor. Usually he’s fine in a day or so. If he’s not, the bruise is probably blowing into a foot abscess, which involves soaking and poultices. (Epsom salts for soaking or poultice, or, alternatively, betadine and sugar. Tea-tree oil may also draw out the infection.)

He was not fine the next day. He was dramatically, foot in the air, pointing the toe lame. Abscess? Likely. Human had not stalled him overnight, however, because new gelding had had his own adventure: had pulled off one of his corrective shoes, which he has to have for severe arthritis in the front feet. Triage said give gelding the one secure stall with soft footing, to keep him from aggravating chronic problem and damaging foot before shoer could come to replace the shoe. Stallion would have to be turned out as usual, with hopes that he would have enough sense not to run around and aggravate his foot.

You know how that would have to end.

Shoer arrived. Shoe went back on. Stallion, however, did not have abscess. Stallion had sprained ankle, and had managed to sprain the diagonal leg as well, overdoing it overnight.

And that was completely a case of human error. Worse: human had been noticing for quite some time that stallion was not reacting well to turnout in an area that allowed him to run up and down for hours, showing off for mares–in fact he was lame more often than he was sound, thanks to old injury incurred while, you guessed it: running up and down showing off for mares. But human was set in idea that stallion had to have that turnout on that schedule because, well, schedule.

It took a literal wake-up call with horse two-legged lame for human to realize that this was not working. Luckily masseuse was due that day, so stallion got an hour’s worth of therapy, and then came shoer to investigate foot issues and find leg issues instead.

Headdesk time. Any organism running through routine without thinking all the way down through the nature and reasons for said routine is going to run into a brick wall sooner or later. Horses, daily life, writing–it all applies.

So now we have a new change in our routine. Stallion is stalled at night instead of being turned loose to run around showing off for mares, and will have his own paddock in the day as he always had–where he is much quieter, calmer, and less inclined to run himself off his feet. And new gelding gets the night shift–in which, so far, he is thriving; for his therapy, he needs lots of space and freedom to move.

Stallion is improving. He may even manage to stay sound this time.

Routine and We Always Did It This Way haven’t been the factors at play here, either. Some outside observers have suggested that the problem may be his hormones–so, perhaps he should be gelded. That’s a standard protocol actually; stallions are often gelded for ease of management. And maybe that will happen, but at his age it’s major surgery, and as far as handling and training go, he’s an exemplary stallion. We also would like to see a few more offspring before he retires, so to speak.

So we focus on the human element first. Changing the way he’s managed. Recognizing that he’s been on a routine that is not serving him well, for far too long and with far too much stupid-in-the-mix on the part of his barn manager.Who was too busy managing everything and everybody else to manage him properly. (Her decision fatigue, let her show you it.)

It’s quite early yet, but so far he’s adapted well to his new regimen. He’s stallbound in the day while he’s recovering from his sprain–stall rest being the traditional treatment–and even with mares in high hollering heat, he’s coping. No craziness. Just talking back and forth, and some arching of the neck and flagging of the tail for the ladies’ delectation.

And stupidhuman will endeavor to be somewhat less stupid, and much more observant. And notably less fixated on routine for the sake of routine. She might even manage, eventually, to apply this new-found wisdom to the rest of her life, including her writing. And that would be a useful thing.

Author

Share

Comments

Insanity Defense — 16 Comments

  1. Oh, Judy, how discouraging! I hope Pooka is feeling much better, and that this does the trick. He has such lovely manners. It would be a shame for him to retire before producing the Heir. (Or has one of the girls been very busy while I’ve had Life, Interrupted going on?)

  2. Thanks, Judith.

    My knowledge of horses is minimal, but I feel like I learn a bit more every time I read your work.

    Here, we sent a matriarch off to a new barn. She was the lowest horse in the herd order, very submissive, and secure in it. Her daughter was her special friend, but daughter also ran with two other young mares, and mama might then hang with the other matriarch, also a mother of multitudes, with two daughters in the herd. But younger matriarch might push the elder around, while herself being pushed around by the rest of the herd. That tended to wear on elder mare. At the new barn, she has her own space, and nobody harassing her. By all accounts, she’s enjoying her retirement.

    This paragraph, alone is rich in meaning and education for me for the social dynamics of horse herds.

    • Yes, that’s why I like these horseblog posts so much. The idea of collecting them in Writing Horses is not just useful tool for writers who want to do it right but also a fascinating insight for readers.

    • Thank you! They do have quite a complex social structure, and are very much individuals within it. It’s fascinating to watch–if challenging, sometimes, to manage.

  3. Well, that was all bad enough! I hope things go much better for the rest of the year, at least.

    The consequence indicators are different, perhaps, but when it comes to stress behaviors as you describe what happens in a rapid turnover place, it could be certain kinds of schools or other institutions filled with high strung, competitive girls:

    “Lots of ulcers, illnesses, foot abscesses, stress behaviors (such as cribbing, weaving, wood-chewing), and the like.”

    Love, C.

  4. Pingback: Things You’ll Find Interesting September 17, 2012 | Chuq Von Rospach, Photographer and Author

  5. At least the one leaving was lowest in the herd and didn’t leave a hole in the middle! I have a new one working his way up in a mixed herd of six. All the dynamics except the top two are shifting. The patriarch, though old and ailing, still enforces his ascendancy with nothing more than a look and the occasional step/lunge. His number two is not budging, but three through six are up and down and back and forth. They settle for a day or two, then someone challenges the established hierarchy and mixes it all up again. There are now 10 food piles for six horses, well spread, so that bared teeth and running lunges do not deteriorate into kicking fights!

    • Oh, I feel for you! We get a lot of that just in the natural way of things, with young mares moving up and down, and the eldest of that group constantly challenging the now senior and always numera-una alpha mare. Eldest mare is the largest by far and knows it, and challenger is the smallest and doesn’t care–and can land some good ones, being very fast and agile.

      I confess to sometimes using these interactions in fiction featuring humans….