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  • The Horse Lady

Sleep, Glorious Sleep

Supper time in a horse farm household. Everyone is wolfing down their evening meal in order to rush off to their evening chores. I mean, you try to sit at the table as a family, but in our modern world - never mind. Supper time and there is a doorbell chime or a knock at the door. You look at one another - you expecting someone? No, you? Who would come to the front door anyway?

When the door opens, there is a person on the step who is near frantic. A glance takes in their appearance, their car - they don't appear to be in trouble. Why the panic then?

"There's a horse down in your field"!!

There it is, the pain in your chest, the lurch of your stomach Oh no. Colic. The dreaded killer of horses the world over. The word Colic is actually a blanket term for a number of different conditions, from excess gas to a torsion of the stomach and the resulting almost certain death. Common causes range from too much grain to tainted feed to dehydration to ingestion of sand. (

You shove shoes on your feet and run out on the step, your eyes frantically seeking the familiar shapes. And there they are. Sleeping. Healthy, happy and completely relaxed. And one of the mares is over on her side, motionless except for the flaring nostrils, searching for threats to their little band, even in sleep.

You are torn between falling on your knees and bawling like a baby or throttling the alarm raiser with your bare hands for scaring you so badly. But no, you inwardly acknowledge that this person is sincere in their belief that the mare was in trouble and so they did exactly what you would want them to do under the circumstances. Only they couldn't tell the difference between agony and sleep.

The story above has never happened to me. I am lucky enough to live in an agricultural community where my friends and neighbours are familiar with the signs of a horse in distress and they would feel comfortable enough to go on my land and help my horse, even to the point of calling the vet if necessary.

No, the farmer in the story above lived near Stonewall, Manitoba, the the ignorant but well meaning alarm raiser was a twenty-five year old me. The experience of horses I had to that point I had gained shoveling horse poop with my brother, and everything I knew about them I had learned in his gruff, and rather brief, descriptions of equine conditions. (I learned A LOT from him) In the same way as he once told me about cats who eat yarn (String gut. Wrecks 'em), he told me that horses that lay down for any period of time were sick. Tell somebody. Quick. That's it. No subtleties. No admission that horses can lay down for other reasons, like foaling. Or sleep.

So knowing what now know, and from the sympathy of one who has been there, if you drive by and a horse is laying in a field, Please do stop and watch for a minute. They are magic, and most horse owners are glad to share as long as they don't see a rifle out your car window (Yes, it happens). If they see a rifle, they will chase you, catch up with your car and flatten your tires with a pitchfork. Trust me, you won't have time to aim.

Horses sleep most of the time standing up. This is because they are prey animals, and are constantly on the lookout for predators or other threats to the band (subset of herd). Horses in very large herds are much happier and often healthier than horses in small herds. Why? More eyeballs. More ears. More noses. And in the event of a disaster, more sharp hooves and powerful legs to fight with.

Every horse should sleep laying down a minimum of two hours per day, but not all do. The dominant horses sleep first, for as long as they want, while the lesser ones keep watch, even if they doze on their feet. Our three have been together long enough now and they feel safe enough that they will all lay down together. But there is hierarchy still. Only when the dominant ones have had enough REM sleep and are back sleeping sitting up does Shannon get to lay out flat and dream.

Its that laying out flat that is the potentially scary pose.

A contentedly sleeping horse will have its eyes closed (usually), its nose will flare in the breeze, sometimes the ears still move, and often the feet will twitch as the dreamer gallops through some dreamland field or plays with an imaginary foal. (It moved me to tears to see Shannon sleeping like that. She was so content)

A horse with Colic doesn't start out laying flat. Usually, he or she will kick at their belly, move around in circles trying to reach something inside themselves that isn't right. If the cause of the Colic is minor, it can often be eased by walking the horse, usually necessary for many hours. A horse with a torsion will progress quickly and eventually fall to its knees, and then roll over. The horse will be unable to rise again without assistance, but its feet will thrash in the attempt. It exhausts itself this way, unless a winch or a block and tackle can render aid. Sometimes surgery can save the horse, but not as much as you might hope. Once the horse is laying out flat, its eyes will still be open, the ears will be laid at an unhappy angle, it will foam at the mouth. Once the thrashing has stopped and the horse is quiet, it is very near death. And the other horses will not be laying quietly chewing a little hay. They will be up, now nudging the sick horse with a nose, but always staying close. Sometimes they will bugle for a human.

I didn't write this to upset anyone. I certainly didn't write it for my own pleasure. I'm going to feel lousy for the rest of the day now. I wrote it so that a casual observer can tell the difference between a happy sleeping horse and a horse in trouble. But mostly I wrote it to tell you this.

If you see a horse down in my pasture as you drive by, and you can't tell if its asleep or sick, I don't care if its three in the morning and you know I have pneumonia, or bronchitis or a hangover, you freaking come and bang on my door, ring my bell and scream and yell until I come. The horse may be contentedly sleeping and I will want to cry and throttle you. But if something is wrong and you save my horse, or even if you don't, I will be eternally grateful and will count you among my closest friends until one of us dies. You're welcome any time. Even at three AM.

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