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What Do You Do When Your Horse Starts to Show Her Age?

Ella is 25 years old this year.  Now that she is retired from being a show horse and lives outside year-round, she grows a lot of winter hair.  As I started shedding her out today, I immediately noticed that there is little muscle left under all that hair.  Ella has lost a lot of condition this winter.  It broke my heart to see my girl getting old.


Yet – she has been a powerful facilitator this winter with clients.  She senses the nervous system of the person so deeply and, in every session, she seems to know what the client needs.  Over the years, I have seen Ella back a woman right across the round pen, advancing slowly one step at a time.  Turns out that woman had trouble setting boundaries in her relationships with men. I have seen Ella walk up to a client and put her head on the client’s chest, right at heart level, when the client needed to know that someone cared.  I have seen Ella have all her attention on a client yet refuse to take a step towards that client.  She knew that person was struggling with the idea of relationships and was afraid to take the first step.  One the client took the step, Ella was right there to connect, hand to nose. I have seen Ella walk up to a client and head butt her right in the solar plexus and, when I separated them and wouldn’t let Ella come up to the client, Ella turned on herself and started biting her own belly.  It turned out that the client carried her trauma in her solar plexus and, if Ella couldn’t make her understand by shoving her nose in the person's belly, she would bite her own belly to demonstrate.  Needless to say, the client got the message.


I have learned to trust this amazing horse to do whatever it is that the client needs.  Ella knows much better than I do what is happening inside the client’s body and nervous system.  She showed me her amazing abilities many years ago, in a session with a client that defied rational understanding.  In that session, Ella showed me what a shaman is, and started me on my path to understanding trauma and becoming a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner.  Everything I have learned in the past five years is because of this horse.


So, when I think about the fact that she is aging and won’t be with me forever, my heart wants to break.  As I groomed her today, I sensed into my own body and felt what happens when a horse and a human really connect.  There was such a sense of gratitude in my heart for all this horse has been for me.  I felt my nervous system settle and a calmness overtook me.  This is what clients experience with her.  This is what I seldom take the time to experience, as I am usually too busy just doing chores and getting things done.


My ‘schoolmaster’ horse, who came to me when she was 15 after having a career as an upper-level dressage horse.   

 I had been looking for about two years for  a well-trained dressage horse to teach me the art of dressage.  When my coach saw the ad for Ella, she said that we had to buy this horse.  It didn’t matter that Ella was in Colorado.  My coach knew this horse.  In fact, Ella had been foaled in Alberta, not 50 miles away from where I live.  My coach had ridden both Ella’s mother and father and they had lived at our stable for a while.  When Ella was 3 years old, she was the high-selling horse at the Alberta Warmblood Sale and went on to have a career in Florida with her new owner.  From there, she was sold to a young woman in Colorado who rode Ella all the way to the North American Young Riders competition in Kentucky.  When this young woman was off to university, she needed to sell her horse.  I was destined to own this horse, I think, regardless of the fact that I had never spent that kind of money on a horse.  My coach told me that if I got one year out of Ella, the money was worth it in what she could teach me.  She came home to her roots and I rode her for 6 years in lessons, then retired her to my place to become a therapy horse.  She owes me nothing.  I owe her everything.


Ella has been close to leaving me before.  She has had a number of colic episodes, the most dramatic three years ago on Good Friday.  Maybe that was a good day to die.  She lay on the ground, motionless and deep within herself.  I sat beside her for what seemed like hours, waiting for an on-call vet to come from a clinic far away from where I live.  But a few minutes before the vet arrived, Ella twitched, and I saw energy move through her body and out with a kick of her hind legs.  Slowly she came back to life and by the time the vet showed up, she was up on her sternum.  From there, she could get up.  When the vet checked her over, he could find nothing to treat so left her to recover on her own.  Clearly, that was not the day for Ella to die.  This was one tough horse.


But time marches on and none of us are invincible.  I am dealing with open sores on the front of Ella’s fetlocks and on her hocks where she rubs herself when she gets up from laying down.

Even though she gets glucosamine and Previcox daily, her arthritis continues to progress. Her knees are shot, the result of many years of upper-level movements.  But there are still days when all the horses get excited and start acting up, when she goes into the most beautiful floating trot, as if remembering what it was like to go down center line in a dressage test.

This is Ella today. This was Ella 9 years ago.

Spring is slowly coming and with it, the promise of warmer days and green grass to eat.  Ella will have a great summer out on pasture and working with clients when she wants to.  She tells me the days she wants to work with people, and also when she doesn’t feel like it.  I listen to her.  I just hope that she tells me when she no longer feels she is up for another day of arthritis and pain.  Then comes the hard decision.

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