Emergency vet call! One of my boarded horses is sick. He’s a draft cross, timid but kind. He likes things to move in horse time. When the vet and his tech arrived, they hurried into his run. He remembers vets and tries to be good, but needles scare him. Intruders moving fast scare him. By moving fast, I mean at a normal walk.
The tech was new, she didn’t know us here. She immediately took a firm hold on the lead rope. No one around here holds a rope tight. It can cue a horse to pull back. “He’ll be fine, go slow,” I say. She flashes me the “I’m a professional” look. That’s fair.
So by now, the horse’s eyes are wide and he is a bit taller than his usual 17 hands–tense and barely breathing. And the vet is taking vital signs as the tech tries to stabilize his huge head. The horse is slightly alarmed–he’s used to doing that himself.
Disclaimer: I love vet techs. I’ve done time in her shoes. It’s hard work with miserable hours, and job one is to manage the horse in such a way that the vet is safe. No one wants techs or vets injured and sick horses are not predictable. To tell the truth, lots of the horses they work on are dangerous because of little or no training. It’s a very challenging job and I appreciate her.
So the tech grips the lead rope right at the clip and is holding fast. The horse is resisting her resistance. And one other small detail; the circumference of his neck is twice her waist size. This isn’t a fair fight–he could launch her over the barn.
She is facing the horse’s hind, toward the vet, who’s prepping an injection now. The good horse is wide-eyed and electric. This makes the vet a bit tense; he might be remembering this horse in the past. The tech trying to do her best, responds by taking an even tighter hold on the horse. She’s not quite on her tip-toes yet.
I am standing about 3 feet in front of the horse, behind the tech’s back. I take a deep breath through my open mouth, counting to three silently. I hold it an instant and then exhale it through my mouth, slow and audible like a sigh–again counting one-two-three. In the middle of this breath, the tech glances over her shoulder at me with brows furrowed. Like I’m crazy or something. I bet she runs into a lot of weird gray-haired women in her day, so I give her the benefit of the doubt and smile mid-exhale.
Breath is how we all connect, but especially horses. It’s just that simple.
I take a second deep slow inhale and this time the tech doesn’t glance at me, the vet is close to giving the shot but seems to have paused maybe.
(As I’m writing this, the thought crosses my mind that I yammer on about breathing in every post I write, in every riding lesson I give. Even as the words are in the air, I can see the rider blowing me off. She wants a real cue that will make a difference. Not some bliss-ninny suggestion to breathe. Readers probably do the same.)
As I began my third deep breath, the horse dropped his head like a rock. And by drop his head, I mean 12 or 18 inches. The vet tech turned, looking at me full on, like I stole the cake, and began reconsidering gray-haired women. The vet gave the shot with almost no one noticing, finishing the syringe with the end of my exhale.
I’m no genius, it’s common sense. If breathing is the most important thing in the saddle, and it is, then it must be twice that important during stress on the ground. It’s an anchor for a horse under sedation, essential for a horse in a bit of shock from an injury, and I believe it absolutely saves lives during a colic.
Breathing is one of those things that is its own reward. Meaning as you are breathing for your horse, deep to the bottom of your lungs, it is the anti-panic drug for you, too. And you need to be calm for your horse. He doesn’t want to hear you hysterically shrieking, either out loud or inside your mind. It never helps. Sure, it’s hard to see a horse in pain. We might be stuck on the spot, but even if we can’t move our feet, we can be strong in our breath.
The meaning of breath is much deeper than words. The thread of his life began with a first inhale and his dam and herd answered him. So, we share our horse/human breath back and forth every day, in ancient horse language, to let him know he is safe.
And if you are very lucky, if you are the very best partner, when the time comes to say goodbye, you can help him. In that precious moment you can breathe with him, the same breath you shared in a lifetime of laughter and tears and warm sun on his neck. There is no finer salute for a good horse than to share that last breath. Because just like all the other times, breath is how we connect.
Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.