The Wild New Norm

According to an equine behavioral study, horses that were returned to the wild after 30 years of management spent 70% of their day (15 hours) grazing. As a human who has been thrust into the wild new norm—aka: unemployment + quarantine—I can relate to those statistics. Since I live with a chef, my hunkering home hours are probably more gluttonous than most. In that regard, I suppose am lucky. But when your primary purpose is eating and watching endless news briefings, your thoughts simmer with surreal fears about mere survival, leaving you feeling like an anxious prey animal in an uncultivated region. 

In mid-March, Covid-19 wreaked havoc on my world by forcing the closing of equine sports. Barns throughout the world went on lockdown and the word “essential” was thrown about to define jobs that sustained only the very basic needs of the human and equine species. Equine bodywork does not fall into this category.   

My own horse is living at a small farm, so I am free to visit her. I try to do so when it is quiet, early mornings. I have become fearful and anti-social. I wear a mask, gloves, and goggles, and I strip down and shower after all barn visits because I have been told that as an at-risk person I should not be venturing out. Period. 

There are many, many boarding facilities that are on lockdown. I am so grateful mine is not. But I feel like a lawbreaker and a hypocrite. I wholly believe in the importance of strict social distancing, and I support the shutdowns of mass gatherings and sporting events.   

My horse is not a piece of sporting equipment. She is my child. I helped raise her as a foal and I was struck by her sweet temperament and well-mannered mother. I followed her career, and when I reunited with her at Palm Meadows, I met a sullen 2-year-old with a broken leg. She raced once, badly, and got injured, but racing professionals rallied for her. I donated therapy sessions and other generous people stabled and cared for her. These same people knew she would never again race safely and they wanted her to have a good home. But a green and injured OTTB is not easy to adopt out. So after a few weeks of stall rest, they offered her to me. She was still healing with six months to a year of recommended therapy ahead, and I hadn't planned on returning to Kentucky with a broken baby horse. After many sleepless nights and phone conversations with enthusiastic friends, I decided to accept. Not knowing how she would pull through, or what her talent would be, I naively dreamt of saving her with my mad rehab skillz. After years of budgeting, scrimping and surviving, I felt it was the perfect time to take a risk and thrive. 

This filly had an extremely challenging new normal. Retired before her career really started, she endured extended stall rest and multiple barn moves. She was transported from Florida back to Kentucky, and she passed through three farms before I found the best home for her. She was explosive and fearful. She had ulcers. One day I was inattentive, and she spooked. She propelled into the air and twisted around, ramming her hind hoof into my sternum. It knocked the wind out of me, and I fell to the ground. I was convinced that adopting her was a huge mistake and that I was the world’s biggest idiot. Forget about having mad skillz, I was just mad. 

It has been less than a year since that accident and we are finding a shared language. Lengthy turn-out, ample grazing, ulcer treatments, vet, dental, chiropractic, bodywork, therapy and patience are helping to unlock the potential of this thoroughbred. I am learning how to be firm, and she is learning to trust.  

I started riding her in December, but she sustained a serious kick injury in February which set us back again. She required stitches, stall rest, and several weeks of nursing and therapy. I am reluctant to ride this filly right now because she is still unpredictable, and I don’t want to be that foolhardy equestrian who gets injured and takes medical attention away from virus-stricken patients.    

Pandemic life, therefore, gives us time.  

We have time to work on the ground, without the pressure or temptation to work under saddle. (*And we do so several feet away from others while following safety guidelines set down by the CDC and the Department of Agriculture.*)   

Last week we worked on relaxing her pelvis and unlocking her psoas. We started in-hand games to develop lateral movement and straightness. We jumped around on gym mats to hone proprioceptive sensibility and confidence. This week, we built up her stifles and lifted her back with double lunging, driving, and poles. We are playing on hills and along fence lines. We are working all over the farm, near buzzing tractors and weed whackers, under low hanging trees, and even during windy afternoons. This may sound simple, and it is, in a way. But for us it is an AMAZING accomplishment. Last summer we were both wound-up with anxieties.  She was a four-legged kite, and merely walking her into the outdoor arena took every ounce of courage and calm we both could manage. Now she whinnies when my car pulls in, and I can differentiate her frustration from her discomfort.   

When this pandemic became official, everything stable and normal stopped in one instant. My husband and I had to recalculate our finances because our extremely lucrative seasons ceased to be. No more relaxing cocktails with friends or cheering on sports teams with the local bar crowd. No parks, no playing, no live music, no theatre, no, no, no. Just so much stress and uncertainty and fear. The only time I found myself breathing normally and calmly living in the moment—thriving—was when I was with my horse, the same horse that had originally been my prime source of fear. 

I’m adapting to the new normal. I’m discovering a new sense of sanity by developing a partnership with my mare. During this wild, world-wide experiment for safety, we are both grazing a lot more, and now we have begun a journey towards calm.