One of our blog readers posted this as a comment to You Be the Judge, 7th Edition. It’s pretty long in the comment section, but the questions were so great that I decided to answer each of them as best I could, and I am re-posting on the front page for better formatting. The italicized/red text are the questions. The regular/blue text are my answers. Enjoy!
I’m going to do my best to answer these questions, but my answers are only from the domesticated side of things as, obviously, my horses are domesticated. I will however forward them on to others who may be able to answer them better from the wild horse side of things… (You makin’ me think today LOL!)
*Just how long does it take for a horse to be able to eat after he’s run for miles pursued by a helicopter? Ok, not pursued by a helicopter, but I have always allowed at least 30 minutes to an hour before any exertion, dependent upon several factors, but mainly the size of the meal that he’s just had. Grass and hay usually don’t “count” as a “meal” for our horses because they are fed prepared feed.
*How long does his normal body mechanism tale to re adapt after heavy stress? This one is the same for all horses. As soon as there is an imbalance in the body that alters his homeostatic state, regulatory mechanisms kick in and begin trying to regain homeostasis. The length of time it takes to regain that state varies. If he is young, healthy, and in good shape, it’s usually not very long; maybe 15-20 minutes. If he is older, of poor body condition, and possibly ill, the process will take longer for logical reasons. Not only will the body be trying to regain homeostasis, it also might be trying to defend its tissues and cells from invading organisms, i.e. infections, diseases. There are other factors that come into play as well such as the climate conditions – cold/hot, humid/dry – but again, these will play more into what condition the horse is in as to how it affects his “rebound” time.
*It might be crucial to offer not only the correct feed but extra protection as well in the form of windbreaks for weak or normal animals to allow the defense mechanism to kick in. I think that when horses are pursued, they typically run for cover. I agree. This suggestion was also brought up and has been taken into consideration. No word yet on definite plans though.
*But here they are pursued and they end up in an open space surrounded by a foreign species, man, which they would normally run away from. This has to have an effect on their nervous system as well, since it breaks down their fight or flight mechanism. Not exactly, and yes exactly. When speaking of the physiology of the equine body, the “fight or flight” mechanism is actually not psychological, but biological. The “fight or flight” mechanism is actually the sympathetic nervous system & the “feed or breed” mechanism is the parasympathetic nervous system. The two are sub-systems of the autonomic nervous system which controls the involuntary processes of the body, such as heart rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure, digestion, metabolism, etc. Basically, they control the responses in the body that do not require an active thought to control. The sympathetic nervous system works on the adrenergic receptors (alpha1, alpha2, beta1, beta2) and the dopaminergic receptors and is activated when there are stresses on the body which cause a loss of homeostasis. The parasympathetic system is the “always on” system, running in the background and controlling vital signs, etc. within normal ranges. When the sympathetic system kicks in, the parasympathetic system “sleeps” or “steps aside”. The purpose of these two sub-systems is to allow the body to compensate when faced with environmental changes inside and outside of the norm. Going back to the psychological side, not the biological, the fight or flight mechanism is the brain’s survival instinct when faced with a dangerous situation. (See more below.)
*A mare might want to protect her foal but she can’t, and it might make things worse for her when her foal is separated from her, even for the best intentions to provide him with adequate care. Could there be more compassion in caring for mares and foals? Yes, in a way there could be. However, this is more a question of “risk vs. benefit”. Would it benefit the foal more to be separated from his dam, vs. to risk him developing an infection if not treated?
*If the foal needs more care, could the mare be allowed next to him, even if she does not need special care? When a wild mare thinks that her foal is being threatened, you don’t want to be anywhere near her or the foal. She is still a wild animal, and will still react in a fiercely protective manner, possibly injuring herself, her foal, and any handler who might be in her way. Her reactions to the situation will actually cause the foal more stress because he will be trying to “do as he is told” by his dam, but will be unable to due to being treated. This is reaction is a form of the psychological “fight or flight” mechanism in that the dam will “fight” because she can’t “flight”.
*I am willing to bet that some of the so called “normal” horses develop behavioral and health problems later on due to the fact that not only the switch from wildlife to captive life is brutal, but also that their normal defense mechanism is prohibited to kick in because they can’t run for shelters. Add to that the extra stress of being mixed up with other herds, other band stallions. It’s a recipe for disaster! Absolutely. As a trainer myself, I have dealt with this situation first hand. While in Washington, D.C. back in September 2009, I relayed the following story directly to Ed Roberson during a meeting at his office with myself, Elyse Gardner and Craig Downer:
In 2004, my biological mother adopted two fillies from the BLM adoption in Lake Charles, LA. They were the cutest little darlings in the world, and so curious! In all my years of training horses, I never had then and I haven’t since met two fillies who were more inquisitive. They wanted so badly to figure me out, but they were hesitant. I assessed both of them on the second day after their arrival. (I gave them the first day to get a little more acclimated to their new surroundings.) They were in my round pen, which was 40 foot in diameter. I am only 5 foot tall, and I weigh in at a buck and a dime. They regarded me as though I was the biggest and meanest grizzly bear this side of the Rockies. No matter how submissive and no matter how dominate my approach was, they wouldn’t budge. (With Natural Horsemanship, the Language of Equus is used to communicate with the horse. This is reminiscent of their times with their dams, and therefore is a much gentler and easier transition into the mutual trust with a human.) I was amazed at how much they wanted to get closer to me but just wouldn’t close that 40 foot gap, not even a foot! They hugged the side of the side pen as best they could, and judging their reactions, I didn’t dare push them any harder. They were full steam ahead into their fight or flight mechanisms; they didn’t feel as though they could fight me, so they would fly away from me. After 3 weeks of this same game, the smaller and feistier of the two finally gave a little. She closed 5 foot, and then 10 foot. The other filly, not wanting to be left vulnerable without her “herd” began to hesitantly follow. Over the next 3 weeks, we closed the gap completely. I was so proud of them, and they were even proud of themselves, but I think more relieved because the curiosity was about to kill them! They became very good students over the next 5 months, and are now living with an ER nurse who worked at the same hospital as I did.
I relayed this story to Ed for two reasons. One, I wanted to express to him how highly unusual it is to have a horse – no matter his background – to react in such a manner for such a long period of time. Initially, yes, there are those who will be aching to bridge the gap but just can’t do so because of the memory markers psychologically imprinted in their minds. Two to three weeks at the most, and those are the really bad cases. (When using their language, they begin to almost recognize you as part of their herd, thus making the transition not such an obstacle.) These two fillies had been imprinted with memory markers that prevented them from following their own natural instincts and language. For a mind to go against its own native form of communication, there has to have been severe psychological trauma; otherwise known as post traumatic stress syndrome.
The second reason was because just before I relayed the story of the two fillies, Elyse Gardner had shown the video footage of Lily Thomas striking the horse known as “Floyd” with a blue paddle on a long stick. It is my understanding, from various sources, that Lily was attempting to move “Floyd” into the chute for examination, etc. When “Floyd” resisted, Lily used the paddle as an extension of her arm, just as is done in Natural Horsemanship training. However, the video showed Lily actually striking the horse, not placing the paddle against his body to induce the pressure zones, hence a movement away from pressure. I have to admit that I was a little less than “diplomatic” at first. Speaking, typing, reading or hearing about a horse being struck invokes a reaction of anger but it’s one that I can usually control for the sake of diplomacy. Witnessing the act is a totally different situation. With Elyse’s help, I was able to regain my composure enough to offer my services to Ed and the BLM as a whole. I offered free clinics on Natural Horsemanship and the Language of Equus – clinics I usually charge $25 per student, per day to give. Ed took my offer into consideration, and has on numerous occasions brought it up in our conversations. Unfortunately, I have not been any clinics given to date to any employee of the BLM. The reasoning, I am told, is due to the overwhelming response to the gathers by the public, and therefore the BLM is in an “all hands on deck” situation. I always remind them though, there is a standing and open invitation to take me up on this offer. (I’ll let you know if that invitation is ever accepted! ;p )
*I think that is one of the reasons people get so upset about the round ups. It’s like asking for something beautiful and wild to suddenly react like a barn horse. If their genes are made to live in the wild, their genes have a blueprint as well to react to stress, fear and exhaustion, and after reading the above studies there seems to be a gap between the study of a horse making his own choices in the presence of the elements and the reality of the horse desperately wanting to flee or even just join his herd and not able to do so. Agreed.
*Since entire herds are rounded up at the same time, why do they get mixed up with other herds? This is destructive to the natural structure by which the wild horse lives his life. Could there be more improvement on the matter? My best guess is the reasoning would have something to do with time and space constraints; meaning that in a gather of this magnitude, there simply is not enough space or time to separate the bands/harems into individual pens. However, during the Pryor Mountain HMA Gather in 2009, Matt Dillon was a volunteer and was able to help distinguish which mare or weanling went with which harem or stallion. This proved to be very beneficial at the time, but there were mixed reviews about the overall success after the fact.
*What about all the horse gentlers? Every one has seen the movie the Horse Whisperer. Since then they are many horse whisperers out there, why not involve their knowledge into the round ups? It is a separate issue from the round ups, just in the same way that wild horse health and regular horse health are separate issues. I would be surprised to get the advice of specialist who is willing to bring something else to the table. LOL, see above. As well, I have been told by BLM and Wild Horse and Burro Program officials that the gather personnel do attend such clinics, regularly. One in particular is Ross. (I am soooo sorry! I can’t remember his last name at the moment!) Anyway. I have been told by several individuals who have seen him at gather operations that he is really great with the horses, employing a lot of the same techniques used with Natural Horsemanship Training and Equus.
*These steps might not seem important to let’s say, a cowboy, (or cowgirl!) but again, there are huge advances in understanding the world of sentient beings and many proofs that once we involve the horses in their own recovery, they also react positively to the change. That’s also what I mean when I am talking about studies stuck in the past. We need to bridge the gap between the understanding of the wild horse not only from a veterinarian point of view but also from the point of view of people who get amazing results by dealing with horses in a more gentle and dare I say, “modern” way. I think from that point of view, the horse would benefit, the vet bills might come down, the budget might even have a bigger beneficial margin since more horses might be keen to be either adopted or at least adapt better to their new environment. I couldn’t have said it better myself, and ironically enough, have said it almost the same way to “the powers that be” multiple times. It’s all about how you “talk” to the horse. It’s amazing what you might “hear”.