The old grey donkey, Eeyore stood by himself in a thistly corner of the Forest, his front feet well apart, his head on one side, and thought about things. Sometimes he thought sadly to himself, “Why?” and sometimes he thought, “Wherefore?” and sometimes he thought, “Inasmuch as which?” and sometimes he didn’t quite know what he was thinking about.
A. A. Milne – Winnie the Pooh.
There’s no doubt about it, our Shetland Pony is depressed. We’ve had Sally-the-Boy for ten years. He was bought for my then two-year-old daughter Anna, who insisted that she wanted a girl horse, so Dusty was re-christened Sally, dressed in pink, and, hey presto! As Anna used to say until she had to accept defeat, ‘Sally is not a boy. He’s a girl.’
But it’s not gender confusion that’s brought about this bout of depression, it’s the loss of a friend.
During the past ten years we’ve bought, re-trained, trained and rescued a lot of horses, and Sal (as in Sal Mineo, or Salieri as our music-loving vet likes to call him), has been that wonderful bombproof child’s pony every horsey family wants. He’s a friendly little chap but with a touch of small man syndrome, and over the years he’s often quite happily bullied horses ten times his size.
He’s had a few friends, but nobody special, not until last year when Mr Blue – so named because of his strangely blue eyes came to visit for a while and stayed for a year. For Sally and Mr Blue it was love at first sight, and they hung out, grooming each other, eating beside each other and generally being best buddies for a whole year, but then finally Mr Blue had to go home, and Sal lost his friend… And his appetite, and his lust for life.
I recognise his symptoms, because I’ve suffered from depression myself – that dreadful sense that nothing is as it should be, when you can feel sad, anxious, empty, hopeless, worried, worthless, guilty, hurt, irritable and strangely restless – quite often all at once!A depressed person loses interest in activities that were once pleasurable (in Sal’s case eating, and play-fighting, busting through fences and trying to get into the feed shed) they may experience loss of appetite, or overeating, have problems concentrating, remembering details or making decisions and may contemplate, attempt or even desire suicide.
Insomnia, excessive sleeping, fatigue, loss of energy, or aches, pains or digestive problems that are resistant to treatment may manifest as well. Fortunately for Sally he doesn’t have to make too many decisions, but even so, seeing him stand, head down, in the corner of his paddock with a little lonely bubble around him, is a bit hard to take.
To paraphrase the song by Chicago, depression takes away the biggest part of us, or so it seems to me. We become less than ourselves, and that biggest part of us seems to disappear down a tunnel.
I’ve learned a careful balancing act through my bouts of depression. I’ve learned that depression often hides extreme sadness and grief and that if we don’t feel and acknowledge it then the blues or the black dog will stay much longer. But I’ve also learned that giving in completely is no option.
Depression loves inaction – and in the end the simplest things are often the best antidote – walking for instance, swimming, or exercise such as tai-chi are all easy, low-impact exercises that help the brain re-focus, relax and re-energise. (Although it has to be said teaching tai-chi to a Shetland isn’t easy.)
Acknowledging the depression is part of the battle, getting appropriate help is another part, and time passing another bit of the jigsaw puzzle, and there is nothing anybody can do about that.
I’ve seen animals depressed before – they feel emotions every bit as strongly as humans, perhaps even more so since the notion of a better future is not really in their lexicon. As Rollo May so succinctly put it, ‘Depression is the inability to construct a future.’
While Sal is suffering, we’re treating him with kid gloves – extra feeds, little walks to juicy patches of grass, lavender oil under his nostrils (yes, truly), even homeopathy, and lots of cuddles and love. He’ll bounce back and be his naughty self again – and I can’t wait.
Treating animal depression
I ran a story by Katherine Waddington in my horse anthology, The Infinite Magic of Horses. She rescued two brumbies in Western Australia who were sisters. Once they were rehabilitated the time came for them to go to new homes.
Lily coped well, but Sophie did not and fell into a deep depression. Fortunately the humans around her realised what had happened, and they organised a visit from her sister, which immediately perked up her pining sibling.
Then, to lessen the blow of separation, they brought the two together from time to time so that both of them would gradually realise the separation wasn’t final. Sophie gradually became so secure in herself that finally she appointed herself the nurturer for all the newly-arrived brumbies.