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  • Writer's pictureDawn Oakley-Smith

The Empowered Herd: The Story of Paris

What does an empowered herd need?

Physical contact.

In Denmark, it is illegal to keep one horse alone because it is considered an infringement of a basic equine right - the ability to offer and receive physical contact with another of one’s own species.

Studies have been conducted regarding orphans in Romania during the 1990s. These children, deprived of physical contact and demonstrations of love, languished – their spirit in effect was broken. Later in life, many were unable to form bonded relationships or experience normal social interaction.

Why should it be any different for the equine, or any other species? It is not. Depriving a horse of the close proximity of others of its kind results in debilitating neurosis, profound disempowerment, and precipitated escalations in the arousal level. All this leads to abhorrent and dangerous behaviours and physical symptoms, including fence-walking, digestive ulcers and windsucking.

Consider Paris, 17 hands, 20 years old, an Irish sports horse. At the time of this incident, Paris was living alone in a small paddock. She had bred two foals in the previous three years, both of whom were weaned too soon and insensitively. Now she was alone. She spent the daytime shut up in a stable and the nights outside so that she would not “eat too much grass”. Lonely and afraid, Paris was desperate for other equine company. Her arousal level was nearly always six out of ten, peaking to nine when anything unusual occurred to trigger her trauma.

When my mare, Lakota foaled in the paddock next door, Paris’s arousal went through the roof. Like a starving person who sees a meal on the table or someone who has been wandering in the desert and sees an oasis, Paris did everything she could to join Lakota and the herd and claim the foal. My mares, Lakota, Star and Moth, had been Paris’s neighbours for a week before Galaxy was born. They had experienced the cycle of Paris’s disturbed emotions many times already, from desperate hope through unsettled resignation, to a relatively regulated state of acceptance. Galaxy’s arrival sent everything into intense overdrive in this bereft broodmare. As Lakota lay in the grass on that sunny spring afternoon, bringing Galaxy into the world, Paris was enclosed in her stable. When the warm spring day turned into a cool evening, Paris was turned out for her nocturnal stint in the paddock. On seeing the new foal, Paris’s arousal level rocketed and so did Lakota’s and then Star’s, and Moth’s – and mine. The big grey mare was beside herself with desperate need which sent her running along the flimsy dividing fence and pushing hard against it. Lakota was consumed with fear as she moved to protect her foal and I was beside myself with the need to calm my mare.

I tried to persuade Lakota to follow me into the field shelter where she would be out of Paris’s sight, but with her increased heart rate, pulse pounding in her ears and adrenaline coursing through her body in preparation for flight, Lakota could not hear me. She was shaking from head to foot. She was in shock. Finally, I managed to halter her and lead her into the shelter with little Galaxy following close by. Lakota did not want to be in there. It was Galaxy who persuaded her mother to accept my advice and stay in the shelter. She did this by coming to me and placing her tiny head against my heart for a moment before lying down in the hay bed I had prepared for her. She lay in front of her mother’s hooves, blocking her way to the outside.

In the moment, as the tiny creature laid her head against me, I felt a great settling and release. Only hours before, I had been sitting in the grass with my own daughter, witnessing the birth of this equine daughter and now, already in the purity of her horse essence, she had provided regulation both for me and her mother. Only a few hours old, within her tiny body, was already contained all the wisdom of her species.

Such is the power of the horse.

The situation was desperate and extreme and created by the ignorant human assumption that horses can live alone. Inflicting loneliness upon this big grey mare has made her desperate. Fear and anxiety are her constant companions, causing increased adrenaline to rush through her systems all of the time. This condition creates physical symptoms ranging from stomach ulcers, respiratory disorders, to strain on the heart and nervous system. In depriving Paris of the safety, regulation and love that can be accessed through the herd organism, we have consigned her to an emotional state similar to a soldier on the frontlines in Afghanistan ─ hypervigilant, alert for danger, expecting death at every moment. The challenges we face, when considering horses’ or any animals’ emotional state, is how to see beneath the surface. Animals do not use spoken language to convey how they are feeling.

Paris for example can look peaceful, grazing in the sunshine – on the occasions when she was let out in the day. It is only when we look closer, and feel her with our bodies, that we can notice hypervigilance written in her wide eyes, swivelling ears, accelerated breathing and rapid grazing movements. Horses galloping in a field can look beautiful, graceful – as if they are having a wonderful time, but horses are prey animals. They do not expend their energy in gallop randomly. A horse or horses galloping in a field are likely to be reacting to something that has caused increased arousal. They are most often in a state of stress.

In asking Paris, and thousands of others like her, to live alone, we are asking her to be solely responsible for her safety. We are asking her to live a life she is not designed to live. Except it’s not really an ask. It’s not really a choice. We are pushing power on her, making it so that she has to live with and under the constraint of our ideas of what is okay. She has to live according to our wishes and needs. She has to push herself out of shape, because we need, or want it that way. The human ego, impacting the horse. Millions of horses and other animals are living this way.

In speaking of these issues I intend no judgement or criticism. I am writing these things because I have lived amongst horses for 50 years in this society, this country of England, in the modern and civilized world. I have responded to the call of my passion for these glorious animals, and life has allowed me this. God has allowed me to have horses, large numbers of horses in my life. I have made mistakes and I have learned from them. I continue to make mistakes and I hope I am also continuing to learn. Because I choose to live in this society, my horses live within these human parameters.

I am guilty of pushing power on them too, of impinging my needs upon them. The difference is I am in authentic dialogue with them. I have ears to hear, I am listening. I am always seeking relationship, conversation, evolution. The horses and I are in a covenant – a sacred contract and I am always open to negotiation. If Paris were living in a herd, if she could have limbic resonance and regulation with others of her species, if she could give and receive mutual grooming – she would not have experienced desperate loneliness or the reactive behaviour that ensued. Her amygdala would not need to flood her system with adrenaline and trigger the flight response. She would not be driven to plunge up and down the fence line, risking injury to herself and others. Other herd members would share sensory input from the external environment, they would integrate with her the chemical changes in her body caused by data received through eye, ear and nostril.

Often, I am invited to work with other herds, and the question I get asked is, will horses who are not accustomed to being kept naturally cope with the change? My response is, yes – this is their natural way of living, and in the deepest where it matters, they will be relieved to be in a situation where they are never again incarcerated in a stable, where their social order is not being disrupted on a daily basis, where they are not separated from the earth by two inches of iron, and when they are free to move and be moved.

Of course, if the horses have been kept in traditional ways for a long time, there may be an adjustment period, a time of transition. It is always my practice to proceed with any process with a horse, human or any animal at their pace. There is no great hurry to return to the natural way, it is a re-turn after all. We have been there already; we were born there and lost our way.

One of the first things I most always notice when meeting a new herd is that many horses are being treated as if they are the centre of the universe. This is true of many animals.

As herd-husband, or keeper, or owner, or holder, you are in a partnership in which you adopt the alpha position. In any interaction with your animals, you take this alpha role because that is truth. You are responsible for the animal’s wellbeing; when and what it eats, when and where it goes out.

We need to own that and be comfortable with it.

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