Happiness is not a matter of intensity but of balance, order, rhythm and harmony. ~ Thomas Merton

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Just Keep Swimming

Sometimes it's all you can do. Just keep swimming. Just keep going. Just keep trying. No matter the obstacles, the difficulties, the challenges - just keep going, meeting them head on and dealing with them.

Underlying all my challenges with Cricket is the persistent issue of her head shaking. For those who might be unfamiliar with headshaking, it can be defined as:

. . . a condition where a horse will flip his head in reaction to sunlight, wind, movement, stress, etc. The horse can display mild annoyance to the sensations, or he may exhibit sheer panic and extreme pain.
While there seems to be a general consensus on what headshaking looks like, there is little real understanding of its cause or causes.

Cricket first began exhibiting headshaking symptoms in 2004. I began researching the matter and trying to find a trigger for Cricket's headshaking. I tried to find some link between episodes but there just weren't any correlations. Time of day, location, weather, tack - it just didn't seem to matter. I had her checked by two vets and her farrier. I had her teeth done and I had her adjusted by an equine chiropractor. Still, the headshaking persisted.

After moving to a new boarding facility in 2005, Cricket's headshaking just kind of faded away. This past spring it came back. It's been going on for almost 18 months now. It is the most puzzling and frustrating thing I've ever encountered. A few things I know for sure:
  • Cricket is not being defiant or naughty.
  • This is not a reaction to some other physical discomfort.
  • Her headshaking is not a result of ill-fitting tack.
  • While more pronounced under saddle, she headshakes during groundwork and out in the field.
In ruling out different possible causes, I came to one sure conclusion. Cricket's headshaking is a true pain response to some unknown cause. And if my mare is hurting, I need to figure out why and fix it. So here we go, swimming through murky waters, piecing together seemingly unrelated pieces of information, trying desperately to solve this puzzle.
I had pretty much ruled out the generally accepted causes of headshaking. Unless Cricket was a true idiopathic headshaker, there had to be some other explanation.
At the start of my journey into this puzzle, I hypothesized that Cricket's headshaking was a result of vaccinosis. I've rejected traditional vaccination protocols but last spring, I slipped and gave her four vaccines in one fell swoop. Last fall I treated her with a homeopathic remedy to counteract the vaccinosis. While it seemed to alleviate the symptoms, it wasn't a complete cure. So while the vaccines may have triggered the problem, there was still something else going on.
Where to now? In the back of my mind, I remembered Linda Parelli saying something about headshaking as a stereotypic behavior, a stable vice if you will. Hmm, how interesting. On a whim, I put "headshaking" in the search engine on the Savvy Club website. The following, a response by Linda to a student's question, popped up:
With the nervous system, stress can have a major effect on it. I believe that the stress uses nutrients and in these cases those nutrients then create a deficiency which leads to symptoms. . . Stress leads to so many illnesses in horses, I really don't think people have any idea how bad it is. It's interesting too that certain horsenalities seem to be more prone to this, it seems to be the ones who tend to hold their stress inside. I've seen early symptoms of it where it looks like a kind of tic that appears the moment the horse starts to feel stressed . . .
Hmm, how very interesting. I know Linda isn't a vet or an expert but still . . . What if Cricket's headshaking is a physical pain response to a perceived stress? Cricket tends to be very internal but not in that "suck it up and deal with it" kind of way. Cricket has very decided opinions about what she will and will not tolerate and she does little to accommodate that which she finds uncomfortable or unprofitable.
So I've taken Cricket's headshaking and re-framed it as an unconscious response to a perceived stress. Makes sense. Vaccines are a major system stress. Being ridden, especially by a novice rider, can be very stressful. Learning is stressful. Upsets in the herd hierarchy are stressful. Hmm, seems to make sense.
The struggle now is to figure out just how you help a horse deal with stress. It's not like therapy or yoga are viable options. So what's the answer? Just keep swimming, just keep swimming.

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