Bawana Jake: How to Eat an Elephant

Sometimes when confronted with a problem, a challenge, or just a plain big old mess, it’s hard to know where to start. It’s the “how to eat an elephant?” dilemma. In fact, it’s tempting not to start. To assume the “it’s hopeless stance.” 

It would have been easy to say “no” to Bawana Jake.  After all, he had been living out full time with a herd for the last three years. He had old injuries. He only knew how to be a racehorse. Horses that are competitive at the track often have a tough time transitioning into riding horses.  They like to run. They get excited about going to work, and working fast. And they are set in their ways. Why not just leave him there? I mean, who, in their right mind, wants to eat an elephant?

The MMSC is all about putting the interests of the horse first, however. Horses are social animals. They like to please. They’re task oriented. Thoroughbreds, in particular, have a stellar work ethic. Not only that, horses are generally healthier when handled and exercised daily than if left to their own devices in a large field. I am of the opinion that if a horse is “response-able,” the responsible thing is to do is to try to give it a new career. Besides, it takes the horse off the former owner’s payroll, making room for a retiree that really can’t go on to a new job. Last but not least: Jake had a bum like a washer woman and the look of an eagle. That combo, provided he could stay sound, was reason enough to take him on.  

Jake arrived at the MMSC on February 25, sporting, as I said, the “Cro Magnon” man look. Not knowing how far we would get with him, or if he would would get anywhere, in fact, I decided we would start with the problems we could see. On February 26, the clippers, scissors, and mane comb came out. So did the weight tape and the measuring stick. His fetlocks and ears were trimmed, his mane was pulled. He got a bridle path and lost his goatee. He was vigorously groomed. It was too cold for a bath, but we started addressing his rain rot with spot washes and sprays. We put him on SMZ
(sulfamethoxazole/trimethoprimtablets, a broad spectrum antibiotic for bacterial and some protozoal infections.  

We had decided to do an informal feed trial—nothing scientific-all observation based, selecting two feeds based on ingredients and cost. We split the herd in half and recorded all their weights and took pictures of them upon arrival. Jake was put in the Nutrena trial group. Two scoops of Safe Choice twice a day. He ate it readily.

The next day, the dentist came. The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) is the most innervated joint in the horse’s body and if its articulation is limited due to uneven teeth, it is guaranteed that the horse’s locomotion will be affected.

Not only that, for those of you who believe in the validity of acupuncture, there are six different meridians that  converge on or very close to the TMJ. These include channels that travel to the front and hind legs as well as to large organ channels. Chances are if the TMJ is out, the sacrum and pelvis will be too and a maybe a lot of other things as well. So, the moral of the story is: If you want a horse to be balanced in its movement and to minimize training injuries, setbacks, and generalized maladies, then do yourself a favor: LOOK IN THE MOUTH. Whether you use electric or hand tools, tranquilize or not, both of which have pros and cons, DO use a speculum,and a strong light. Study the teeth, the palette, the gums, the sides and the tongue. The mouth is the key stone.

Jake’s teeth hadn’t been floated in a while.This isn’t surprising. Retired horses don’t need to be maintained as regularly as those in work. His teeth were rough. Some sharp points had ulcerated the sides of his mouth.We gave him some bute, and let him heal up for the rest of the week.

The next step was to get x-rays to see where we were with old injuries. While we waited for an opening in our vet’s schedule, we started with Natural Horsemanship ground work in the round pen. I like to let a horse work at liberty from the get-go. When you are attached to a horse with a rope or lunge line, you have the advantage. At liberty you get to see a horse’s true colors.  

Jake was interesting. He was herd bound, which is not surprising given his three year hiatus in the field and somewhat right brained, meaning he acted before thinking. That’s a typical response for timid horses: Take flight; process later.

But Jake wasn’t timid. He was Alpha in the field, laying down the law, deciding which horses were in his clique, which were out, eating first, determining where and how fast the herd needed to go. So the issue, in my mind, was trust.  

Clearly human interaction was either scary or irrelevant or both. That needed to change. Beginning in the stall, entering his space deliberately, slowly and respectfully. Allowing him to approach the handler first. Blowing a greeting of hello in his nostrils and waiting for his warm breath to come back. Keeping close watch of where and how he liked to be groomed. 

In the round pen it meant yielding shoulders and hindquarters, determining direction and speed, establishing the fact that humans can be part of the herd, albeit odd looking members, who must respected and trusted as  worthy leaders. I decided we needed to go much more slowly with Jake, and hoped by taking our time with every encounter, all ground work and each bomb proofing session, that we would have a better chance of bringing him to the right place, whatever that place was going to be. 

As soon as we got his rain rot under control, we body clipped him. How surprising o see the sculpted muscles underneath all that hair and after all those years! Then we had him adjusted by the chiropractor and got some age old kinks out.

Dr. True came to examine Jake, flexing all joints, taking x-rays. Luckily we had access to the X-rays from 2011 to compare the current ones too. Remarkably, the joint had remodeled; the bone had smoothed out considerably, all courtesy of Mother Nature and Father Time.

“Go on with him,” Dr. True said.

“And jump him too?”

“Sure,try it. He’ll let you know what he can and cannot do.”

So we started training in earnest.

 Long lining and lunging first. Then, a month after his arrival at the MMSC, under saddle. It was funny and touching to watch him those first few times under tack. Clearly, he  thought he was back at the track!  He jigged, skedaddled and pulled at the bit at the trot, going faster if Carolyn, his rider, leaned forward, slowing down when she made her torso more vertical. Cantering had to be done in a two point. If Carolyn sat down, he gave repeated gentle crow hops until she removed her posterior from the saddle. “Girl, you need to learn how to ride!,” Jake seemed to say. We all laughed.

Every day as he got stronger and lither, more settled, more trusting and learned to travel from behind, using that prodigious posterior for some truly impressive propulsion, my hopes rose. With his creamy caramel coat starting to sport an impressive copper sheen, his top line emerging, and his right brained behavior beginning to abate, I hoped that he would be ready several weeks hence during the Rolex Three Day event.

Then our acupuncturist popped the bad news:

“He’s got EPM,” she said.

EPM (Equine Protozoal Myletis) is not something you want your horse to have. It’s a degenerative neurological disease caused by a protozoa that is found in the feces of opossums. It can wreak havoc in a horse, affecting its locomotion, destroying is muscles, eating away at its nerves. Most horses have been exposed to it; some come down with it; a few of those are successfully treated.

“NO!!” I exclaimed. “EPM!? He shows no overt symptoms.”

“EPM can be dormant for a long time. Most horses have been exposed to it. There seems to be a link between it and stress levels.

I knew that. I had had horses that had it, some of which I had treated the conventional way with drugs with very guarded results. I had even lost one. Lately, I had had much more success treating it with acupuncture by injecting the horse’s own plasma into specific EPM acupuncture points. It seemed that stimulated the immune system.

“What are his chances of a full recovery?”

“Good. But, as always we will have to wait and see. We’ll recheck him in 30 days. You will want to put him on Chinese herbs too, they will help” and she handed out a bottle marked “Sinking.”

Talk about sinking! It was hard to keep one’s hopes up with that news. And I thought I was well on the way to devouring the elephant! Turns out there was a lot more of the beast left. 

Would my hope for this horse last?

(Cheery) Bye,