Wednesday, June 2, 2010

A very bad day

"Stan," our farrier, is a gentle soul who's been shoing horses for 40 years. He came yesterday to reset Midnight's shoes and look at Galahad’s feet. Galahad's hooves were quite worn across the front—short, with the hoof part even shorter than the sole, and he’s been getting uncomfortable. He’s either pawing a lot or just plain walking on his toes because his feet are tender. Either way, given that we want to ride him on these rough, rocky trails and that his other two riders weigh a whole lot more than I do, he needed shoes on the front feet.

Everything went just fine at first. Galahad was calm, with no sign of anything wrong, while Stan picked up and cleaned his feet, trimmed the hooves, and fitted the shoes. But as soon as he started to nail, all hell broke loose, and Galahad turned into this rearing, plunging, terrified beast. Poor horse! He tried to pull away from the halter and managed to skin up his face, and somehow got the rope across the quick-release knot in such a way that it took me an additional five or ten seconds to get it loose.

It was horrible. For the next two hours he hopped and skipped sideways, he tried to refuse to pick up his feet, he turned and pranced and pulled…. Eventually, Stan had to put the horse equivalent of a choke-chain on him—a chain running under his chin attached to the lead line, so that when the horse pulled or reared, he’d get a sharp yank in a sensitive spot and (hopefully) be less inclined to do it again.

The pain did have some effect on the intensity of the rearing, but the look in Galahad’s eye was like a knife to my heart. I had promised that horse that he’d never have to experience pain and fear from a human again, and that I’d protect him. Of course, I should have known that wouldn’t always be possible.

In this case, he had a shoe with only four nails in it and was endangering the farrier. At that point, Stan had to get some kind of control of him. But seeing the horse I know retreat behind fear-glazed eyes was dreadful. And I know this horse: The fact that Stan got the final nails in was more a matter of luck and speed than of willing cooperation from the horse. Galahad would die before he would stop fighting. He has that much heart.

I also felt like I’d failed him because I wasn’t able to calm him down and to reassure him like I’ve done on so many of our “scary things” walks. But in retrospect, I need to remember that Galahad is a rescued horse. We will never know what he endured as a colt. Obviously, one thing he suffered through was one or more very bad experiences with shoeing. Stan figures he jerked as someone was shoeing him and a nail went into a sensitive spot. He was probably then beaten when he protested. It’s amazing that he’s as good as he is!

Abused horses always have “triggers” that set them off, and just as in this case, you never know what the trigger is until you pull it accidentally. One horse I know from the rescue ranch is terrified of the reins going over her head; another of having the top of his head touched at all. Still another is afraid to stand still with a rider on her back. If she’s moving, she’s OK; it’s the standing still that terrifies her. One can only imagine what experiences caused these fears.

These types of responses are very difficult to overcome. They’re like the equine equivalent of PTSD, I suppose. So there really was no predicting Galahad’s reaction, and once it escalated, there was nothing anyone could have done. Had I not been so shocked, and so convinced (by his previous reactions to other stimuli) that I could get him calm again, I would have called off the shoeing until we had worked with him more. But by the time I realized the depth of his terror, and gotten past my own instinctive acquiescence to the “authority” of the farrier, we were too far into it.

I wish I had understood the situation more quickly. If wishes were horses….

Galahad had calmed down completely by last night, it seemed, and was as affectionate as ever. I didn't recover as quickly. Humans dwell on things; horses don't. I had nightmares all night; he probably pawed down some more shavings with his new, shiny shoes, and slept like a baby horse. I'm going to start working more with his feet, so that maybe Stan's next visit, in seven weeks, will go better.

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