Does this sound like a recipe for disaster? Take one really tall horse, add a head trauma somewhere in the past, plus a history of horse jerking her head up when tied and breaking three halters in a month. To this horse, add a sinus infection and two fractured upper molars. Fold in a trip to the Veterinary College for a CT scan, followed by surgery to remove the teeth (through the cheek as there is not enough tooth surface left to extract them through the mouth), and then a hole drilled in the front of the head to access the sinuses in order to deal with the sinus infection. Post-op care consisting of daily flushing of the sinuses through a tube that had been inserted during surgery. A second surgery three days later to deal with a soft tissue mass in the sinus on the other side that had been picked up on the CT scan. This poor horse has to be heavily sedated every day in order to do the necessary flushing of the sinuses, as she does not want people fussing with her head. Who could blame her?
Add to that, the horse is sent home with instructions for the owner to remove the stitches from the cheek in a few days and to just observe the stitches in the sinus areas, as they were dissolvable and should go away on their own. But without the ability to sedate this horse, how does the owner deal with all this head business on a previously traumatized horse?
Of course, this is not theoretical or a recipe. This is real life for Ella and me. I have written before on dealing with her halter trauma last summer. We had been doing so well – she was really beginning to trust me around her head and very seldom gave me any concern when I was grooming her head or removing her halter. So to have to put this poor horse through such a traumatic experience involving her head was a nightmare for me. But there was no alternative to the surgery for her sinus infection and the fractured teeth except ‘benign neglect’, as one vet so eloquently put it. That would mean leaving her to suffer until she slowly faded away and eventually euthanizing her. Not an option for me!
This is where many aspects of my recent learning have come together. The trust that I earned from Ella through working out her halter trauma last summer allowed me to clean the nasal discharge from her nose twice daily after I brought her home. As long as I stayed calm and made sure I was breathing, she would lower her head for me and I could wipe out her nostrils. She also let me remove the stitches from her cheek with no issue because of the trust we have built up. But then the stitches in the front of the head began to look suspicious so I began applying a warm compress to that area twice daily to clean it and soften the crusty bits around the stitches. Ella was tentative about this as I am sure she has awful memories of the sinus flushing, but as long as I was very careful and calm, talking gently to her, she let me touch this area.
Two days ago, though, it became obvious that one of the sinus incisions was becoming infected so I called the surgeon at the Vet College for advice. He said to remove the stitches and apply warm compresses to the area, suggesting that I give her two doses of oral phenylbutazone for pain control before attempting said suture removal. Non-horse people will not have any idea about how difficult it can be to get a horse to take ‘Bute’. It tastes terrible! And Ella, the princess that she is, is a very picky eater. There was no Bute ingested by her. But as all great ideas come, in a moment of inspiration I remembered that there is a lidocaine cream available that will numb an area before a surgical procedure, or injection, etc. Quick trip to the pharmacy to purchase cream.
Finally, this is where it all comes together. I needed my husband’s help for this. He was to hold the lead shank with instructions not to resist or pull if she jerked her head up. I also explained to him that he needed to do Heart-Focused Breathing, breathing into his heart and breathing out positive thoughts to Ella. I also needed to remember to breathe as I worked around Ella’s head. The trust that has been built up between us paid off, as I calmly and quietly softened the crusty stuff around the stitches with a warm compress and then used a cuticle scissor and tweezers to pull out the stitches. There was no drama, no head jerking up – just a hurting horse trusting the human to do what was needed. Everything I have learned in my Eponaquest training, plus the breathing techniques from my Trauma Sensitive HeartMath training, my own continuing inner work to become more conscious, aware and in the moment, plus a few bits remembered from when I was a pharmacist all came together today to make what could have been a recipe for disaster turn out to be a profound experience of trust and connection between horse and human.
After we had finished, I said to my husband “Ella really does require us to be better humans.” She teaches me every day how to be calmer, quieter, more present, more connected to her and to myself. She does the same for clients who get to work with her in EFL sessions. This is one amazing horse, and I am so grateful to have her in my life.