Kevin Droski of the Ravenseyrie Sorraia Mustang Preserve sharing some late day sun with the half-Sorraia stud colt, Interessado
(One of my favorite photos)
(One of my favorite photos)
I have had a most difficult time finding the best way to share this story. Initially, I relayed events in point to point, linear fashion, which had the effect of protracting non-essentials in a tedious way. My second version abbreviated certain aspects which while lessening the runaway verbiage unfortunately rendered the emotional agony within the chain of events flaccid, hollow, almost illusionary, though those sensations were painfully real at the time. I've decided to approach the story differently today, starting from the "turning point" rather than at the beginning. So here we go...
In response to an almost hysterical accounting of our inability to completely remove Porcupine quills from the muzzle of our half-Portuguese Sorraia/half-Kiger Mustang yearling stud colt, my friend in Quebec settled me down by providing a different viewpoint to consider...a perception which my heart and soul had felt from the beginning of this unfortunate incident, but which traditional horse-keeping/pragmatic-minded voices kept overriding, causing me such emotional conflict I began to feel unwell.
With his permission granted, I'm going to share a portion of the email my erudite friend sent:
Gee! Don't hurt yourself my friend...
This situation is not as dramatic as you seem to think it is.
Maybe you are just trying to help him too much. Why don't you let him think it over a little? After all, it is his decision, eh?
In any case I would suggest that if you try to pull out any of those quills, your priority should be to get rid of the deeper ones, if you see what I mean.
If he doesn't let you, well, then things will follow their course. The quills will travel inside his nose's flesh and the body will react to this aggression with swallowing and infection. Of course you could then administer an antibiotic (Longisil) through injection, but I don't believe it is necessary - the risk being that he would freak out and get the wrong message.
He is young, healthy and strong and he will come out of it for sure. Do you realize how much he learns about you through this experience?
There are several potent, transformational messages within this reply. Can you see them? Do you feel them?
The very first morning after we moved here to Ravenseyrie, our dog Tobacco had an encounter with a Porcupine. He had hundreds of quills on his nose, in his mouth, even down his throat, sticking out in painful awkward, unreachable angles. It was the first of several such encounters, each requiring a trip to the veterinary clinic and an application of general anesthesia to remove all those harmful quills. During those times, we were made aware of the horrific damage that could be done to dogs if all of the quills are not removed. Remaining quills soon migrate through the flesh and have been know to exit out the eyes, enter the lungs, pierce the heart, cause infectious illness or death.
Porcupine, image found at Wikipedia Commons
All the local people we met had nothing but tremendous hatred for porcupines due to the danger their quills pose to livestock and because of how destructive they can be to wooden structures (which they gnaw upon). Their first course of action when faced with a porcupine is to get a gun and shoot the animal as a preemptive measure against potential damage.
Porcupine quills are modified hairs, thickly coated in keratin and provide this gentle, non-agressive, slow-moving animal with a spectacular means of defense. A porcupine protects itself by fanning out its tail and causing its quills to stand upright, but contrary to certain misconceptions, it cannot "throw" its quills at a target. Animals that brush against the porcupine or attempt to bite it quickly find themselves impaled with these sharp organic needles, and it takes a rather determined tug to pull them out. These quills are very firm, strong and slow to deteriorate--even though they are hollow inside.
So, with the knowledge of how painful and potentially damaging the situation was, Kevin and I were in rather a panic to remove those quills from young Interessado.
While I had played quite a bit with this primitive, black grullo colt, getting him accustomed to having his head handled and even fashioning a "halter" out of the old leather rein I keep for such manner of training young horses, I had never actually put a factory-made halter on the young lad. As I approached the youngster, he looked at me with definite discomfort. The quills poking out of his nose dramatized his unease, but he let me scratch his withers and neck and slip my lead line around his neck. As I carefully drew the halter (a simple grooming slip actually) up to his head, he rebuffed my offering of the halter and began to walk away. I let him go and then tried again, this time holding him with the lead around the neck while I attempted to put the halter over his head again. This time without hesitation, he bolted violently away, pulling free of the lead rope, but, thankfully, calmed himself immediately and went over to stand by his brother, Animado.
Wielding a pair of needle nose pliers, Kevin had come on the scene with alfalfa cubes and this soon got Interessado's attention. I don't know how he did it, because both Animado and Interessado were constantly moving their heads to be in a better position to take these treats from Kevin's hand, but Kevin was able to extract several of the quills, with absolutely no restraint or confinement of Interessado! After a few more extractions, the pain offset by "cookies", the black grullo colt decided he'd had enough this this type of attention and moved off with the rest of the herd to graze. It was amazing to me that he had been able to eat his breakfast oats and now could take up grazing peacefully with a muzzle full of quills!
With those horror stories of migrating quills fresh in mind, I was not soothed by the tranquil grazing Interessado was doing and so, with even greater loving determination, I presented him with the halter and a plea that he come with me so we could remove the rest of those quills. In her book, Empowered Horses, Imke Spilker wrote, "Running off, fleeing and turning away always mean: NO!" And using all of these options, Interessado made his "no" obvious. I could understand and appreciate his response completely...the colt was fully aware that I meant to capture him, physically restrain him and force him to accept (endure) our well intentioned ministrations.
In my early twenties, I remember one time getting a very large and painful sliver in my foot from walking on a roughed up wood floor. I knew that I would have to get the offending object removed, but I could not manage to extract it myself--my fear of the pain made my hand too shaky. My roommate at that time was even more timid about such things than me, but her boyfriend felt he was up to the task. Even feeling his kind intentions and steady hand, I instinctively kept pulling away. It took a glass of wine and a diversion of my attention (via clever conversation) before I was able to let the tweezers do their job. This memory prompted me to suggest to Kevin that we consider asking our veterinarian for an oral sedative, which would make it easier for Interessado to accept our help.
After a phone consultation with the veterinary office, Kevin left to go pick up the prescribed "Atravet" granules and in the meantime, I went back out to be with Interessado.
Mistral and his followers had crossed over to the east sector of the property and were grazing at the edge of a shady grove of trees. Interessado let me come up to him and itch his back and neck and I made no attempt to halter him. Instead I went over to sit upon a rock in the shade. He followed and soon was standing over me with his quill-festooned-muzzle right at eye level. While itching his chest, I showed him my pliers and asked him if I could pull out another quill. He lowered his head, kept steady and I plucked one out! He jumped only a little and while I took up itching his chest once more, he again dropped his head into a steady position where I could pull out more quills with the pliers. In this manner I made a little more progress removing those "foreign whiskers", until Interresado decided he wanted a break and wandered to a nearby tree to rub his rump. I went over to him and offered to do a proper job with itching his rump, which he readily accepted. Then, once again, he just stood quietly by me and put his muzzle in my face. I raised my pliers to pull some more quills, but this time he kept moving his head (saying "no") , so I gave up trying and figured we would just wait now for Kevin to return with the sedative.
While waiting, I reflected on how effortless it was to pull out those quills when the colt gave me permission to do so. I also was particularly aware of how difficult it is to catch a horse who does not want to be captured when he has the free range of 360 acres. Continuing to feel that it was vital that we remove those quills but that it was equally important to do it in a cooperative way, I was really counting on the sedative to help us gain that cooperation.
When Kevin returned, we mixed the Atravet granules with oats and presented it to Interessado and he readily began to eat while we guarded his space to keep the others in his herd from stealing this medicated ration of oats. (Remember, we are in the big wide open with no separation between us an the rest of the herd.) Then we waited the prescribed 45 minutes for the drug to take effect. There was no effect however, and each time I would offer the halter, Interessado would rapidly leave my presence and go stand by his equine friends, eyeing me with distrust. Kevin telephoned the veterinarian for suggestions and received instructions to triple the dose of Atravet. Even at triple the dose, there was again, no sedative effect on the colt whatsoever--Interessado was just as determinedly adept at distancing himself from any attempts to be haltered than if he had not received any drug at all. I could approach him, scratch him, fuss with his mane and tail, but any attempts to restrain him with a rope on the neck or an offering of the halter would provoke a swift departure from my presence.
Kevin consulted with the veterinarian once again, and soon was off to the clinic to pick up hypodermic needles and a bottle of "Rompum". Our plan this time was to inject this more powerful sedative as a team--with one of us distracting Interessado with horse cookies while the other gave the injection in the top of the rump. Upon Kevin's return, once again, reading our intentions perfectly and wanting no part of our plan, Interessado responded by moving away from us, with great wariness and distrust which deteriorated to the point where he would not let either of us near him at all.
During all of this we could see that some of the quills were becoming shorter, moving their way further into Interessado's flesh. I was visualizing those quills migrating upward, eventually piercing an eye or entering the brain... I became more agitated, more horrified at the potential damage these quills could do and more determined that we would have to override Interessado's desires and impose our own, for we believed his life depended on it!
By now the horses had roamed in their grazing all the way to the far east fence line, and while we continued to see if Interessado would willingly let us halter and doctor him, our neighbor, driving by on his way home stopped to find out what we were up to. In his typical cattle rancher's manner he assures us he can get close enough to put a loop over the colt's neck, he can hold him and get him to a tree, where he'll snub him up and get the job done. He says its the only way... At first, I say, "no thanks" and walk out to where Interessado is, with just my leather training strap. Kevin and the neighbor exchange a few more words and the fellow drives on home. Interessado walks up to me and let's me scratch him--after him avoiding me just a short while before, my hope is renewed. He let's me put a loop around his neck, and is happy to have me itching him. With Kevin looking on, I'm feeling like maybe our luck is turning and we'll be able to get Interessado sedated and remove the remaining quills without struggle or mental trauma after all. I pick up the leather line, looped around his neck and ask him to follow me (a game we've played to mutual delight prior to today). Interessado responds by instantly bolting free from me and running about seventy feet with the extra length of the leather loop dangling down and catching under his hooves. A leather loop hanging around the neck and trailing its extra length on the ground isn't a safe piece of tack to have on a loose horse in the middle of the wilderness. It took another long time of just hanging out with him before he would allow me to come close and take the leather strap off him. I finally accepted that, obviously, this method was not going to work for us.
I am ashamed to admit that as the late day light began to make longer shadows across the landscape, our sense of panic that "We must do something!" began to push out all our usual mantras of partnership, shared leadership and friendship. Sometimes, don't friends have to make hard choices for each other? Was this not a situation where the "more knowledgeable" humans had to do what was in the best interest of the health of the animal in his and her care? Kevin went off to fetch back our neighbor and take him up on his offer to help catch and doctor Interessado. When Kevin and Bill returned, I abandoned this colt to the rougher skills which my neighbor had in mind and I abandoned the honoring of a horses "no" and I walked back to the house, feeling mentally and physically ill.
At first, Interessado wouldn't let Kevin and Bill anywhere near him, but after realizing Kevin was carrying a pan of alfalfa cubes, he reconsidered. Repeatedly, Kevin put the pan down for the colt and when he lowered his head to eat the cubes, Bill tried to quietly slip a soft, loop of rope over his head. Repeatedly, Interessado evaded such attempts to capture him. Their next plan was to halter Mistral and using him as a leader, walk the group back over the fields to the old cattle sorting corral by the house, figuring they'd get everyone in the corral and then separate out all except Interessado who would then be much easier to catch. Mistral wouldn't let himself be haltered, but Zeus was a willing candidate and soon I could see the group coming towards the field by the house. Unfortunately, I could also see trouble on the western horizon, for our stallion, Altamiro, and his family band were walking eastward even as Kevin, Bill and their rag-tag herd were headed westward. (Again, remember the horses all live on one large open tract of land, and even though they have separate herds there are no physical fences between them.) Altamiro spotted Mistral's herd and snaked his family into a tight pack, then went off to the east to challenge the oncoming group. Suddenly, I saw Zeus rearing up and pawing the air and the rest of the group was turning and running away. Kevin somehow managed to get the halter off from the panicked Thoroughbred gelding and soon he and the others in Mistral's group were out of sight.
Darkness was settling in on them, so Bill told Kevin he would come by in the morning and they could try again.
With virtually every element in the universe seemingly bent on thwarting our attempts to doctor this colt, we went to bed feeling that while we would certainly renew our efforts to remove those quills, we would try to get Interessado in the corral and try on our own to work things out and not get our well intentioned but rough-minded neighbor involved.
While Kevin was working on shoring up some weak spots in the corral the next morning, the very insightful email from Jean came in, and prompted us to step well back from the way in which we had been forcing the situation.
Kevin and I had been so convinced that Interessado was in grave danger from those quills that we lost a bit of the unity we have otherwise been living with here at Ravenseyrie. We began to assume that we knew better than nature and that we could not trust things would resolve themselves without our manipulating them to fit modern concepts of what is right and what is wrong. We had fairly well reverted back to a dualistic mindset that pits humans against nature.
In his book, Plant Spirit Medicine, Eliot Cowan wrote:
"Dualism might be defined as the illusion that there are two discreet principles in the universe: self and other. Dualism implies isolation, conflict and a continuous struggle of opposing forces. For this reason, actions based on dualistic vision are simplistic, aggressive and destructive...The dualistic dream engenders an endless procession of conflict, aggression and destruction as each "solution" creates new problems to be attacked."
Cowan's words aptly describe that warm summer day when we were faced with a "wild" colt who's muzzle was afflicted with porcupine quills. Each "solution" we attempted created its own set of problems and as the day progressed, we found ourselves further and further away from the holistic manner of beingness that we had been dedicating ourselves to--in fact we were behaving aggressively and had we prevailed, something in the relationship between us and Interessado would surely have been destroyed.
"Do you realize how much he learns about you through this experience?"
Yes, Jean, I sure do!
And I have learned much about myself as well...
So, what happened after that?
Well, I will surely not leave you hanging!
We decided against luring Interessado into the corral and instead went back to asking for his participation and direction rather than imposing our own agenda on him by putting him in a situation where his "no" was not honored. As before, we offered to him our services, by asking him if we could pull out the quills. Each time he softly turned away from the pliers. So I found myself repeatedly going out to wherever he was on the landscape and checking in with him to see how things were going, and to offer my help if he wanted it.
What transpired over the course of days and weeks was a marvelous example of a young colt showing me that he had the situation under control. Never once did Interessado seem set-back by what he was experiencing, but simply took everything in stride, exploring for himself various options to assist in his recovery. I've got a series of photos I've taken and some video clips to help illustrate.
Do you see the Cedar (Arbor Vitae/Thuja Occidentalis) fruits laying on the ground? From the very first day, Interessdo sought out and began eating these. The essential oils of the Cedar tree helps support the immune system in addition to providing antifungal, antiviral and anti-inflammatory capacities among other grand uses.
Interessado was also selecting old Cedar stumps to rub his muzzle on. You'll have to turn your head to see the videos. (When I take photos with my camera turned sideways, it automatically puts the photos horizontal, however I forgot it doesn't do this for capturing video footage.)
Between those quills which we were able to remove and those that may have fallen out through rubbing, there were also many that migrated into the flesh, little by little, until they completely disappeared.
Interessado had numerous small abscesses from the invasion of these migrating quills, but none so great that he required intervention. He continued to eat breakfast oats, graze the fields, drink from the creek and in all ways seemed very much himself.
In just a few days those porcupine quills had completely disappeared, and after a week, there remained only one small abscess.
During this time, Interessado was as easy to approach and engage in games as before.
Would this stud colt have been equally at ease with me if we humans had succeeded in capturing him, holding him in tight restraint and removing the quills against his will, or would the groundwork of friendship and trust have to be rebuilt, with always a bad memory persisting between us?
For those individuals, like me, who feel drawn toward developing relationships with horses that are based on completely different concepts than traditional dominator models, looking once more at pertinent excerpts from Imke Spilker's book, Empowered Horses, we understand how essential choice is in the relationship and how vital free space is for the horse to express his choices in ways that are very clear.
"Free space is what creates the possibility of a true dialogue. The horse can leave or he can come, he can say "yes" or "no". We want the horse to sense his freedom, to feel it, to realize it...We want to share pride, joy, and time together with the horse, not force ourselves on him. that can only happen if the horse is with us of his own free will. For freedom to even be possible there must be several options available, among which free choice is permitted. In addition to the option of coming along the horse can walk away, keep his distance, do something else. And he must know that he has this freedom and can use it at any time."
"Yes", or "no" translated into the language of open space is to approach or take flight. In open, free space the horse speaks a visible language that every human being can understand. In such free space the horse the person can learn to refine his skills of observation to such a degree that he begins to sense his horse's feelings. that ability makes him independent of academic theories or clichés of conventional wisdom that perhaps do not even suit his individual horse at all. Instead of being informed by opinions or contradictory advice, he now experiences directly and first hand the needs and preferences of this one unique horse. This horse protests when he is over-faced, discusses things that do not make sense, and rejoices when he does something exactly right--understanding!" --Imke Spilker/Empowered Horses pg. 37
It was particularly difficult to stay true to these concepts when faced with what appeared to be a medical emergency, and I still feel it was important that Kevin and I try to intervene and help this colt in the best way we could. We do give up a lot of human control by granting our horses so much space to live, making it all the more important to establish willing cooperation, since (as this situation with Interessado has demonstrated so vividly) traditional means of "capture" are at a definite disadvantage in a wilderness setting. Even a completely "broke" horse could have avoided doctoring in this setting if he chose to.
We have learned that not all mishaps in the lives of wilderness horses require human intervention. We are not so much "controlling owners" of these horses as we are "caring supporters" of them, and the best way we can support them is to recognize that when things are "right" they are almost effortless with all the elements at play working together for a common end. When things are "wrong" there is dualism, conflict, escalating aggression, disorderliness and constant pitfalls keeping us from reaching the common end. This does not mean that there may not come a time where the concepts presented in the book, Empowered Horses, are the best fit for a given situation. To hold rigidly to any one concept is a sure way to stimulate duality and separation, which will close one off from the best possible approach to the situation being presented. This is one of the trickiest aspects to nurturing holistic interactions...there must be fluidity in all things...
From his book Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, Japanese Zen master Shunryu Suzuki tells us:
"The cause of conflict is some fixed idea or one-sided idea...If you understand the cause of conflict as some fixed or one-sided idea, you can find meaning in various practices without being caught by any of them. If you do not realize this point you will be easily caught by some particular way, and you will say, "This is enlightenment! This is perfect practice. This is the best way." This is a big mistake. There is no particular way in true practice. You should find your own way, and you should know what kind of practice you have right now. Knowing both the advantages and disadvantages of some special practice, you can practice that special way without danger. But if you have a one-sided attitude, you will ignore the disadvantage of the practice, emphasizing only its good part. Eventually you will discover the worst side of the practice, and become discouraged when it is too late. --Shunryu Suzuki
With all these things in mind...Kevin and I now have a dart gun on hand with tranquilizers should a true emergency arise that makes it obvious that immediate intervention is essential. And should such a scene present itself here at Ravenseyrie, based on the things we've learned from this experience, if what we are doing is right, it will be almost effortless in how the common end is achieved.
Let's close with a few photos taken of Interessado just this morning. How thankful we are for his spectacular self-healing and for the non-ordinary tapestry of learning he provided us. (And thank you, Jean, for providing an invaluable turning point for us!)