The sudden and much anticipated arrival of Scottish summer over the last week or so has made me less productive in terms of writing: it’s hard to focus on working on a computer when there’s sunshine and happy horses waiting to have fun!
But I’ve been given a topic to write about through a discussion about a horse who’s had a nasty infection in two out of four legs that seems to be very resistant to vet treatment.
It’s taken me back to an amazing time in the history of psychology: the years during the early 1960s when it suddenly became clear that some physical illnesses were related to our emotional responses to things that happened to us. To say it now isn’t all that surprising, but back then, the brain and the body were considered separate. Illnesses of the body were caused by outside agents – germs, poor hygiene, wars, bad lifestyles. Problems with the mind weren’t considered illnesses at all: there was no such concept as mental health or mental illness.
Part of the change happened because two researchers, Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe, asked 5,000 people with physical illnesses what had happened in their lives in the previous year. As a result of what the people told them, Holmes and Rahe worked out that the more things that happen that disrupt your life, the more likely you are to become ill. They went on to test this by asking healthy people to keep records of what happened to them over a period of time. The people who had the most things happen to them (Holmes and Rahe called the things “life events”) were the people most likely to become ill. Although there was a range of illnesses, many people who had experienced lots of life changes suffered from heart disease, asthma, skin allergies and ulcers. They also tended to get more coughs, colds, flu – and there was a slower healing time for minor injuries.
As a result of the research, something called the Social Readustment Rating Scale was developed. Different life events were given different scores: bereavements and marriage breakdown tended to have the highest weighting. Loss of job and retirement were also rated as being very challenging, as was moving house. What these things had in common was that they generally put the person in a very stressful situation, where they didn’t have access to their normal social support. The most important thing about the scale was that while a person could probably deal with one or even two quite difficult situations, if lots of smaller scale things were heaped on top of this their health would start to suffer.
I think we should think about our horses’ lives in a similar way. We do often realise they’re under some stress, but once it’s all done and dealt with from our point of view, we forget it. But horses, like us, are very sensitive to social stress, and like many of the people studied by Holmes and Rahe, they have very little control over what happens to them. So in a given year, how many life events has your horse experienced? One? Two? A few minor ones? Here are things I think are horse life events: please add to my list! Moving home, leaving all familiar companions behind. That’s a huge one! Bereavement – death of a companion – that’s bad, but in many ways for the horse, it’s not that much different from being moved to a different home – in both cases, they lose their friends. Box rest – there’s another big one – familiar friends are there but they have no access to them – just like being sent to jail, which is the fourth most serious life event on the Holmes and Rahe human life events scale.
Humans rate difficulties at work as very stressful, especially change of job. So think of a horse being ridden for the first time – they have to learn many new things in a short space of time, they may take a while to understand what they need to know, and they’re learning in a situation where their social support isn’t present.
A change in eating habits rates quite a few points on the Social Readjustment Rating Scale. This happens to horses at least twice a year: from summer turnout to winter housing, from winter housing to summer turnout.
Taking this into account, a competition horse can experience many life events in the course of a few months. So the high incidence of ulcers, colic are to be expected in many performance horses, because each event, each change is added on to the total score. In two or three months, we’ve forgotten that our horse has changed yards, changed turnout, lost close friends, had to fit in with a new group, been taken to lots of shows, changed diet… We’ve forgotten, but our horse’s body hasn’t. Here’s one example of what can happen: elevated stress levels lead to the release of a substance called histamine. Histamine is a broncho-constrictor, it narrows the passages in the lungs making it more difficult to breathe. It also increases gastric acid production, and it increases our skin’s response to irritants. In horses, you may see coughs, breathing problems, hives, gastric ulcers. A substance called cortisol is present in higher than usual levels in our bodies during times of stress: it keeps our bodies functioning in adverse situations. However when the stress levels drop, and cortisol levels start to return to normal, it leaves an after effect of low immunity, so we’re more likely to catch colds, and small injuries take longer to heal. This is just like the horse that started me off thinking about this: tiny injuries on the leg that just wouldn’t heal and are getting worse instead of better despite time and treatment.
Because it’s our (and our horses’) emotional response to things that happen, and because the things that have most effect tend to involve having to deal with changed social situations, we should try to take this into account when working with them. If your horse has to move, can you make it so that they move with a companion, a horse they already know? When they get to a new place, can they meet just one or two sociable horses in a situation where there’s no pressure in terms of scarce resources (plenty of space, plenty of food). If they’re being trained in something new, can you arrange so they have a familiar companion with them? At shows, can they have familiar company? If on box rest, can you arrange a stable where they have as much familiar social contact as possible? It’s sometimes not possible to remove all the damaging stress from a domesticated horse’s life, but by keeping a mental tally of the changes they’ve had to deal with over the last year, we can help them stay fit and healthy.
Please feel free to share – and let me know anything you think should be a horsey “life event” either here or on the HorsesUnderOurSkin Facebook page (if you “like” the page, you can be sure to get updates when there are new posts).
I’m off out to enjoy some Scottish evening sunshine, thank you for reading!