By Kate Thornton
Annie was upset. She was so confused. Where was her Mother? Why had she been put in a taxi, on her own, and where on EARTH was she going to? No one had told her! As she wept, she could just about see the eyes of the driver in the rear-view mirror through her tears. He was frowning. She could tell he had no patience with her. In the end he piped up “For goodness’s sake child, STOP with the sobbing!” But….what’s going on?
The taxi was uncomfortable. Annie hadn’t eaten since breakfast and Marie, her Nanny, hadn’t packed her anything to take with her. All she had done was ushered her out of the house and said “come on now Annie, it’s all fine, you’ll soon forget about us here” Not likely! As the taxi drove on and on, she looked wide-eyed out of the window. Tree after tree after hedge. The occasional house and then moorland. Wide open expanses of what was not too long ago, a mass of pinks and purples; the heather was beautiful when in flower. No use thinking wistfully about happy times on the moors now though – she clearly wasn’t staying.
“I need the toilet” Annie pleaded with the driver “please, please, can we stop?” “NO – I said, we need to get there, I have to drop you off and then be somewhere else, just cross your legs.”. Desperately uncomfortable now, Annie sat, her stomach aching, her heart pounding, her breath getting more and more shallow. Last time she was in a taxi was the first ever time and she ended up in a hospital having a painful tooth extraction. Was she going back there?? Surely not. She’d not had a toothache. But then where? She felt sick to the pit of her stomach. She wanted her Mum. She wanted Marie. She wanted to be curled up in her warm bed.
Finally, the taxi started making turns, and drew up outside a huge, domineering, Victorian building. The stone dark grey – darker in places where it had been tainted by age and weather. Some of the windows were boarded up – what were they hiding? Annie did NOT like the look of this. Why was she here?
From the creaking, double doorway appeared a stern looking woman with a stick and a frown that could turn a person to stone in an instant. “Come here child! Quickly!” Annie scampered out of the taxi – one good thing at least – and cautiously made her way towards the woman. “COME ON! We do NOT have all day!” the woman reached out her stick and drove Annie in, pushing against the backs of her legs as she tried to rush through the doorway. Why Why Why was she here?! On reflection, perhaps if she got back in the taxi, she could persuade the driver to take her home…..surely her Mother would pay him a princely sum for her return?..Yes, that is the better option now. Annie turned on her heels and with a determined pace, set back towards the front door, only to be sprung upon from either side by two heavy-set men who grabbed her hard, one on each arm. That HURT. Her feet were off the ground now and they were taking her upstairs. Annie was now screaming and sobbing with all her might. WHAT WAS HAPPENING??
“I really don’t know what all the fuss is about young lady” said the woman, quite calmly, given the situation and Annie’s protestation. “This is your room, there’s the bathroom, get yourself changed and be down the stairs for dinner at 6 o’ clock SHARP”. The door slammed. She heard their footsteps and the clacking of the stick on the stone floor, gradually getting quieter.
Annie was spent. She slumped down on the floor. Was this her new home? What is it, a boarding school? An asylum? With sore arms, a heavy heart, tired eyes and a huge knot in her stomach, Annie banged on the door with her fist. Then banged more, and more and continued to bang. No one came but Annie heard a voice yelling “SHUT UP!!”.
Harsh time huh? Poor Annie, just imagine how she felt. Fear, confusion, loneliness, pain, hunger, desperation, upset – a whole array of emotions. You can totally understand why though, can’t you?
Ok, let’s talk about horses. When we have a need to move our horses around – to a competition, to a specialist veterinary hospital, to a new yard, to a training session, the process for the horse may not be quite as simple as it seems that it should be, from our point of view. Horses not wanting to load is a common thing – but what we perhaps should be thinking is why is this process difficult? Behaviour always has a reason. A horse planting or trying to rear out of the way of the ramp – stubborn? Difficult? Acting up? Pain in the butt? Well, nope. Horses don’t do things just in order to be difficult. Most of the time there is an intrinsic reason why they do what they do – just like us. Just like Annie. Those feelings of uncertainty, isolation, confusion, fear, physical discomfort. The journey might be lonely – his mates aren’t with him. What lies ahead? Last time he was in this trailer the result was a shocking great showground with dozens of horses and people he’d never seen before. Noise. Trailer ramps clattering, children squealing, and suddenly he was out, tethered to the side of the horsebox and unable to see what was on the other side. WHAT was going on? WHERE was he? Then the saddle on, pinching……Not good memories – potentially conditioned emotional experience.
Obviously not all horses are feeling this when transported. There are, fortunately, many who have been given patience and understanding and a slow and gradual introduction to the process, done at their pace. However, it’s important that we take time to stand back a bit and contemplate what things mean to our horses – all our equines. What they are seeing, hearing, smelling. How they experience different tactile stimuli. What is in their environment that they like, that they fear, that they’ve never seen before, that they want to explore more? Each of them is an individual with their own set of values, experiences, perceptions and feelings. Their emotional experience is hugely important in terms of welfare, not just basic needs, but actual quality of life, enjoyment. As sure as we want to be happy, meet the people we get along with, be warm enough, cool enough, out of pain, doing the things we enjoy, eating the things we like and need, so do our equines and actually, it’s a pleasure to go on a journey with them to find out who they are.
The opportunity to share these experiences with a horse, donkey, mule (any animal) is a privilege which is hugely rewarding. Not always plain sailing though, right? Very difficult if we don’t know our horse’s history, or how their view of various environments and situations, people and other animals affects them. Being versed with equine body language is pretty essential if we are to put ourselves in their shoes. Just watch them. Is there vigilance? Are they backing up or perhaps edging their nose further forward to get a better smell? What are they trying to communicate when they pause? Just as we may have similar experiences and feelings as a friend or family member, they may have commonalities in this respect with other horses – but we (and they) also have a very unique set of realities. Being asked to go into a box and being shut in must feel hugely compromising for an animal that is innately wired to flee – who feels the need to be able to run…..
For me, the experience of being put into a vehicle and having no clue what lies ahead feels like it must be such a strange feeling. Granted, if the individual has a consistent history of non-aversive or even pleasurable outcomes, they may feel more comfortable and ‘go with the flow’. Even then though, it doesn’t mean the journey itself is positive, and even if every destination has been a good thing in the past, it’s still nice to know what has been decided for you on that day. Sadly, we can’t explain verbally to our horses where we’re taking them and what lies ahead, so it’s important that we do whatever we can to gain their trust, so at least they may feel that if you are with them, they are safe.
The journey itself, regardless of destination, poses certain challenges for horses. Constant compensatory postures to counter the swing of the vehicle or the camber of the road (and engaged in a split second as they can’t predict what turns or pitches are ahead!). Having their head held in an upright position for significant durations is tiring for the muscles which are involved in holding the head and neck up – if you have any idea of how heavy a horse’s head is, you can imagine this would get tiring and cause muscular tension.
The importance of providing forage during travelling is also huge – empty stomachs mean less of a buffer for acid which is thrown back up into the squamous stomach during intense movement (for example if travelling to a competition – the speed and/or intensity of the sport can potentially cause this). If the stomach is already lacking that buffer, then the travelling itself may cause acid spillage. This can then lead to colic and/or ulcers. Similarly, opportunities to drink during longer journeys is crucial, and if there is chance to allow the horse out to graze or even just eat forage from the trailer floor, this should help them to empty their sinuses (Brown-Douglas, 2011)
This is not to say we shouldn't transport our horses - in many cases we have to and sometimes solely for their benefit. I'm just asking that we see it from their perspective and do what we can to make it as positive as possible. So, it's just to say, food for thought – next time you transport your equine, spare a thought for Annie 😊