Horsekeepers: Skip the guilt trip!

For many of us, owning a horse means confronting self-doubt when an illness or illness occurs or other things go wrong.

If you’ve owned horses for a while, this scenario may sound familiar: Your horse is suddenly lame or ill and—right away—you set to blaming yourself. Ugh, you think, he was a little sluggish yesterday, probably not feeling well, and I just kept riding. What was I thinking? Next thing you know, you’re buying yourself a one-way ticket on the guilt train. 

Palomino looking out stall door

I experienced this recently with our 25-year-old Haflinger gelding, Mighty—my husband’s heart horse. I’ve taken care of Mighty every day for the last 21 years and I know him inside and out. How could I not have seen this catastrophe coming?  

Mighty was fine in the morning. But by midday he looked like he was doing a reining pattern in slow motion—compulsively circling to the left, then walking sideways—as if he was drunk.

A preliminary diagnosis: EPM

Our veterinarian was nearby, so within an hour we had a preliminary diagnosis. Mighty had EPM, equine protozoal myeloencephalitis, and it was attacking his nervous system. A week later, the blood test confirmed it.

How could I, a lifelong horsewoman, have missed the early warning signs of EPM? I should have seen it coming! What was I thinking?!

“But he didn’t really have any signs,” my daughter pointed out.

Even so, what about his weight loss last summer? I thought it was his teeth and had our equine dentist come out.

“Right,” my daughter said, “and then he gained his weight back.”

Then there was that video my husband took while riding—one of those “between-the-ears” shots. I noticed Mighty looking left more than he was looking right. Another subtle EPM sign that I had missed? No, my husband patiently explained, there was something making rustling sounds off to the left in the forest.

I couldn’t drop the idea, though. Mighty had been looking left, but I hadn’t noticed, and here he was a month later, compulsively circling left! If only I’d put two and two together, we could have treated him sooner.

“But who calls their vet because their horse is looking to the left?” This, from Nicole, my hoof trimmer. I supposed she was right.

Still.

After a stressful week driving back and forth to get Mighty’s medicine, and researching all I could on this disease, a psychologist friend said, “Guilt’s purpose is to let us know when we’ve done something morally or ethically wrong. That just doesn’t apply here.”

I thought about that a lot. It was true.

Letting go of guilt

I hadn’t done anything morally or ethically wrong to cause Mighty’s illness. And then I found this from Bill Watterson, the creator of the Calvin and Hobbes cartoons: “There’s no problem so awful that you can’t add some guilt to it and make it worse.”

Okay. Okay. Time to step off the guilt train and turn my negative energy into positive action. Truth is, I think I was even bringing Mighty down. I set to work on massage and body work to help his recovery.

Mighty improved and I felt so much better. But if the outcome had been less positive, I would still have known I tried my best.

Maybe you feel “guilty” when you don’t have enough time to spend with your horse. Perhaps you wish you were a better rider. Or maybe, like me, you wish you had noticed those earliest signs of trouble. I encourage you to step off the guilt train.

And, once your feet are back on the ground, focus on what your horse needs and what’s most important. You are doing the very best that you can.

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