Forty years ago, we didn’t know about ulcers. Some horses acted crazy and we tried to train them out of it. Colic was the number one killer of horses. We didn’t know what we didn’t know. Then around thirty years ago, we began to recognize and study ulcers. Research papers came out, scopes were invented, the connection between ulcers and colic studied. We got the harsh news that our management of horses, how we keep them, was killing them as surely as if we held a butterfly in a glass jar.
We also began to look back on horses we knew and felt hindsight guilt, the helpless feeling for good horses with obvious symptoms we didn’t know how to recognize before. It’s that guilt that spurs me to talk ulcers every chance I can. It isn’t me that brings the topic up all the time, it’s always a horse. They let you know, as plain as words on a page, if you listen to the horse’s body voice, his calming signals. I might meet the horse at a clinic because his human thinks the horse has a training issue, and they’re right. The horse can’t work because he is in pain. That’s when trainers become amateur vets. We are the ones who see the pain behaviors and if we are educated, we can help the horse. Bad behaviors are often a call for help and when the pain stops, the behavior stops. I’m not saying a trainer is qualified to diagnose; just that vets and trainers should both be concerned for the horse’s health first.
Research has yielded better management practices, supplements, and treatments for ulcers. For some horses, it’s as simple as getting a diagnosis and treatment. Horses will a previous ulcer history are likely to get them again. We estimate about 50%-90% of horses have ulcers, especially foals, but half the horses scoped and found with ulcers show no symptoms. Can we believe the numbers or are they higher? Some horses get treatment and the symptoms cease, while in some horses, ulcers can return immediately. In a minority of horses, the pain seems to never go away. I’ve worked with client horses whose pain behaviors have become chronic and unforgettable. I have a personal horse who has taken me to hell and back with disabling ulcers. Not to mention that ulcers leave scars, which are also painful. Some owners give up trying to help, claiming it’s their horse’s nasty personality. I don’t believe that.
A vet might suggest what I’m about to say is anecdotal. Interesting because I’ve been asking every vet I meet about their anecdotal thoughts about ulcers for years, “Since horses don’t have creative thought in the way we do, but do have a powerful memory, can a horse tell the difference between having an ulcer and the anxiety/pain of being in a similar situation and a previous painful experience?” Is it real or is it Memorex, as the old ad line goes. We have so little brain research that we’re left guessing. Before speaking at a recent conference, I went to listen to a university veterinarian talk about the current state of ulcer treatment. I asked my usual question and her answer was brand new. She said vets don’t think of curing ulcers so much as managing them. It felt affirming because in my work it looks like a continuum; at one end apparent pain-free peace and the other end, a thrashing colic episode. In the middle are a simple sour stomach, the memory of ulcers in the past, current ulcers, stoic horses hiding pain, ulcer scars, and whatever we still don’t know. Call it gastric discomfort but if we read calming signals, we understand that horse isn’t okay. Maybe the horse needs vet care and maybe he needs emotional support.
If training causes ulcers, can different training help them? Can compassionate training have a part in healing a horse? Can we find a way to use scientific research to understand horses both physically and emotionally; to deconstruct the big words in long sentences and extrapolate the facts into understanding that help the good horse in your barn? The damage of recurring ulcers leaves an emotional scar, but what methods of working with him can support him moving forward? From another perspective, it might seem that a horse is needing to heal an abusive past of aggressive training, but there is always a physical tie, perhaps lameness or the horse’s digestive system. Horses speak to us through their bodies.
Get your horse the physical help he needs; vet care, bodywork, a supportive diet, change his living environment. From the accepted procedures to the obscure methods, consider that as long as a horse’s head is connected to his body, there will a mental aspect involved in every physical challenge and fixing one doesn’t necessarily fix the other.
Is the hold-over pain a psychosomatic (literally, “mind-body”) condition? That would be a misunderstanding. Horses don’t make up the pain to evade work. Where a real physical problem exists, the psychological factors naturally contribute to the experience. Mental behavior and attitude make the pain better or worse. We can train in support of healing? The current cutting edge of horse training is the holistic marriage of new scientific information, updated psychology, and our ability to be vulnerable to growth.
The horse world is changing fast. We must ask the hard question, are we bending horses to our will and convenience, or are we helping horses gain strength and confidence by putting their welfare first? When we know more, we must do better.
Training traditions may be comfortable habits or create romantic images, but they may also be outdated. Hindsight guilt and hand-wringing don’t help. We owe it to the memory of those horses we innocently failed and to the future of our current horses, to not cling blindly to tradition. It’s up to us to invent new training methods that understand compassion and vulnerability are dynamic and powerful strengths.
Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward
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Working with riders of any discipline and horses of any breed, Anna believes affirmative dressage training principals build a relaxed & forward foundation that crosses over all riding disciplines in the same way that the understanding Calming Signals benefits all equine communication.