I’m responding to a request to write a few words about poop. “BM, defecation, excrement, fecal matter, the deuce, sh*t, meadow muffins, fertilizer, dung, feces, number two, crap, guano, manure, night soil, or my personal favorite, horseplop.”
There you go. A few words. Get it? But alas, I’m just not willing to be all that funny about manure.
Here is how I lost my sense of humor about all things fecal. I know people who think their horse has a master plan to embarrass them at a show by dropping a load at “X” or spraying a green arc out from a 20-meter canter circle. Some take it as a personal insult if a horse poops within 10 feet of them. Some go nuts because seven days a week, their horse’s stall looks like a frat house on Sunday morning. Some rage against the inconvenience of a horse peeing in the horse trailer or their stall.
Or you might be like me. I might pick up a turd for a closer look and there’s a good chance I’ll smile. You know the glee of colic resolving with moist manure. Or the call to the vet for the old horse with chronic guano stains. You understand the need to help a horse with projectile excrement. There is always a message being sent by way of poop. Some of the messages are health-related and some emotional but every action a horse takes is a message. The horse is telling us something about themselves.
A bowel movement is just one part of the horse’s digestive system that starts with the horse’s muzzle and travels through a digestive system that is truly frail, considering ulcers and colic, and on to the anal end of the path. Humans say we get a ‘gut feeling’ but for horses, it’s even more literal. Many internal changes happen when a horse goes into a sympathetic system (flight) response. Heart rate goes up, but the digestive system slows. Body tension, muscle constriction, and pain can impact (sorry) the system to a life-threatening point. Horses that are anxious or overwhelmed will have several large bowel movements in a short time, including mass elimination and eventually diarrhea. A stress poop is a call for help or calm.
How about crap as a calming signal? Have you noticed some horses leave a deposit just before stepping into the trailer, or starting a jump course, or approaching an obstacle? Imagine that it’s a release of dread like a lick or yawn, but on the other end. In some situations, when a horse leaves a turd pyramid, it’s an affirmative answer, right before the physical volunteer. It’s a release of a lower level of anxiety, he is ready for the task. That deserves a good boy. It’s a sign that the constipated logjam of over-cueing and anxiety is ready to clear.
I had a young horse who was proud to drop-and-pee, splashing a circle of people standing close, and know others that needed to go back to the privacy of their stall to pee. Those are statements about confidence. A horse who is relaxed enough for a normal sort of urination or bowel movement close to us feels safe. When I’m mucking and one of the horses walks over, turns his butt to me, and loads my fork, I say thanks for the trust.
I swear, some of this is basic common sense. Horses don’t like to splash wee on their legs any more than we like to clean it off. Best to wee in deep shavings. That’s what they’re for, right?
Some horses have a habit of seasoning their water bucket with shite, a message of discontent or not feeling safe, in the limits of the stall or other areas of their life. While some stallions will stack several efforts into a soft cairn, other horses will pulverize each fecal fleck, you really want to listen there. Horses are herd animals; confinement and isolation are hardwired causes of anxiety. Not a choice for them. Your horse needs room to move. We might see a stall as a convenience for horse-keeping, but it is solitary confinement for them, something that can cause humans to rub their feces on the walls from stress.
Perhaps you take poop personally? Do you think your horse’s digestive eliminations are meant to embarrass you or mock you? That your horse has a long-term goal of driving you mad with planned feculence, creating a landmine field of meadow muffins precisely timed and located for your demise? Do you fantasize that horses are capable of intentional negative behaviors for psychological purposes or manipulations? Are you spending emotion and anxiety complaining about your horse’s personal habits? That their sole purpose in life is to get your silly white clothes dirty or mystically insert horsehair in your underwear. Do you think you should be able to control a horse down to the insult of a deuce pile in an inconvenient time or place? In a world where horses can dance, where the goal of oneness in movement with another species exists, are you kidding? That’s just horseshit, a word synonymous with nonsense and foolishness.
The science is in on this but maybe it bears repeating. Horses do not have the same neocortex that humans do. Our frontal lobe is used for higher cognitive functions such as like problem-solving, social interaction, and impulse control, not that you can tell by looking at our bank accounts. It’s also the part of our brain where we criticize and disrespect ourselves and others; where we make up stories that are hyper-romantic or demeaning and paranoid. These are mental activities horses are free of. Horses do not cheat or pretend to be stupid or plan elaborate practical jokes. Horses are not capable of deceit. Isn’t that why we prefer their company to humans half the time?
The gift for humans who strive to understand calming signals and work with the horse in an affirmative way is that we learn to welcome all information to support our horses more deeply, in the hope we can become more trustworthy in their eyes. If we are in horses for the long run, if our commitment is true and our passion aimed for their welfare, we should be more concerned with the horse’s emotions than our own. Part of that is making friends with poop, embracing it in all its varied beauty and eloquence.
Because eventually, we face the saddest day; the last dung pile you will ever muck up from a heart horse. You might leave it where it fell for a day or two, sentimental and reluctant to let go of this final organic blessing. Can you really love a horse without loving his horseplop too?
Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward
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