Windsucking is a debilitating obsessive compulsive condition exhibited by horses of all breeds, it is particularly prevalent in horses who have spent extended periods locked in small stables or yards with no mental stimulation. The horse places his top front teeth on a hard surface and sucks air into his stomach in an obsessive manner similarly to obsessive habits in humans, chain smoking obsessive cleaning irrational phobias.
Over the years I have seen many miserable examples of horses wind sucking, the anxiety it causes me personally never ceases to catch me by surprise, it really does make me feel physically ill.
It’s not the action of the horse wind sucking, it’s the thought that humans have put young horses in situations where they are so mentally stressed that they resort to this disturbing behaviour.
From my experience Young horses so mentally effected rarely recover to any great extent.
Owners try all sorts of draconian methods to stop the incessant unconscious habit of Sucking air into the horses stomach. A surgery has now been used with some success in stopping the action but the surgery and collars and electric surfaces don’t deal with issues which have caused the condition.
Often with riding I see people working feverishly on symptoms rather that eliminating the causes. People spend so much time for instance trying to stop a horse falling to the right whilst on a circle, the symptom is falling to the right, the problem is not going forward straight on the ridden line, fix the problem and there is no symptom.
Recently in our thoroughbred rehabilitation program at St heliers prison in the hunter valley, we had a young horse who was as bad a wind sucker as I have ever seen in my nearly 30 years as a professional horse person. He stood constantly sucking on poles in his 5 acre paddock stopping so rarely to eat that his feed was taken by his paddock mates and his condition dropped to a miserable level. Collars were tried to no avail and he was placed in a paddock by himself which seemed to stress him even more, he still did not eat well and did not graze, preferring to suck poles all day. He was starving to death. The vet and our staff were very concerned and at a loss as to how to solve the problem there was no way we could place this horse, there was no interest in taking on such a bad case of mental scaring.
Consideration was given to euthanising this horse who was basically dieing slowly and miserably.
On one of my visits to the prison to work with the inmates a young cowboy came to watch me work with the inmates and horses in the program. He was a tough looking guy as many of the inmates are, he had the look of a fella that was comfortable in the prison environment. He sat on the top rail of of the round yard as I worked the horses, he did ask if it was ok but no doubt it was a challenge to see if I could cope with the distraction to the horses,” no worries” I said.
He watched for an hour or so as I instructed one of the newer inmates as to how I wanted the horses worked and what his objectives were.
After I had concluded the cowboy came to me, “I like what your doing” he said “I learnt a bit there” not an easy admission for a guy who had found his place in the works as the “tough cowboy guy” who new his stuff.
“I’m working with a young horse, will you have a look at him ?” “Sure” I said “go and grab him”.
He came back with a chunky young bay thoroughbred saddled in a stock saddle. “He goes alright but he’s got a few issues, I’m helping the old bloke over there with him.” a thin face older inmate stood intently in his prison greens at the side of the round yard his eyes wide, he was struggling to listen to every word of the conversation. Let’s call him Con. “Old con wants to ride him” said the cowboy. “Good stuff, lets have a look at him”. “Can I have a feel of him before you start.” “Sure” said the cowboy.
I worked the horse in hand, he was a lump of a thing with a good temperament, fairly relaxed about what I was asking him to do considering he hadn’t done anything like that before, it’s interesting how real horse people know what they need achieve to get the best out of their horse it’s amazing how close different styles of riding, done well, really are .
After I worked the horse the cowboy jumped up on his back, he cantered the horse off rolled back on the fence, slid to a fairly, mouth opened halt, and reigned back. Not my idea of a warmup but it’s not my roll to lecture people on how to ride their horses. I gave hIm my thoughts on preparing the horse for Con. ” what’s the horses back ground ? ” I asked “this is the wind sucker they were going to put down”. I was in shock I had seen this horse standing in a yard for over two hours and hadn’t seen him wind suck once, I couldn’t believe it was the same horse, I was beaming ” how did you get him to this point ? ” the old blokes done all the work” replied the cowboy.
It turns out that on the day a decision was to be made on the fate of the wind sucker Con put up his hand to take the horse on and give him one more try. Though all and sundry thought there was no hope for the improvement of this horse no body wanted to see a young otherwise healthy horse put down.
Con was an elderly man, an ex Vietnam vet. He was in jail for a particularly violent and harrowing crime of passion. Con had suffered terribly from post traumatic stress syndrome as a result of situations he had found himself in whilst in the armed services.
At the time of his conviction he had not been diagnosed with PTSD though he was being treated for depression.
Other inmates had spoken of how, even now he screamed at night in his sleep haunted by his past no doubt compounded by the remorse and memory of his crime.
With my recent involvement with ex service personnel retuning from conflict with PTSD and Equine assisted experiential therapy, I had run a number of week long courses and was daily involved with people in Cons situation. I understood where Con was, 50 years on still suffering and untreated.
Con though not a trainer but was part of the thoroughbred retraining program he had a love for horses and liked to be around them they helped him hold some of his demons at bay.
Con had had a fairly solid Involvement with horses as a younger man, he recognised the mental anguish of the young wind sucking horse and convinced the vet and staff to allow him to work with him.
Con had no strategy, he would spend time with the horse, hand feed it sit with it while he read the paper, talk to him, groom him, walk him like a dog, con lived with him as often as he could, he had no shortage of time or empathy.
I have never seen a horse truly stop wind sucking. But in the two hours I was with this horse he did not wind suck once that I observed. As I new him previously he wouldn’t have lasted two minutes without attaching himself to a pole. The horse had gone from a bag of bones with serious mental issues to a solid healthy relaxed useful animal and Con had gone a long way to dealing with some of his painful baggage , he had a purpose and a mate.
The old man had produced an amazing result, his goal on release from gaol is the ride this horse from Sydney to Melbourne to raise funds for thoroughbred rehabilitation and ex serviceman suffering from PTSD. I personally will support him, he is currently considering an appeal to reduce his sentence and charge on the grounds of PTSD.
Wind sucking is a miserable symbol of how we sometimes disregard the welfare of horses, I’m not saying it’s an easy thing to fix but now I can say I’ve seen it done.