At the Fenway Foundation, we speak to a lot of horse owners. Many owners reach out for advice related to nutrition, general equine care, or help with a Friesian-specific issue. Occasionally, we get the kind of call that begins with a question related to a horse that has a chronic health issue. The owner and I usually exchange pleasantries for a few minutes, but when we begin talking about the horse, the line often gets quiet... and then the tears begin. These kinds of calls are really hard for the owner to make. The stress of caring for their horse is palpable over the phone. They are emotionally, physically, and often financially overwhelmed.
I really sympathize with these owners because I've been in their shoes. I've had my hopes and dreams come crashing down in a few minutes as the veterinarian is telling me a horse's prognosis is poor and the condition is chronic. I've slogged through the mud and rain, delivering meals ladened with medications that seem so complicated they ought to have been created in a laboratory. I've laid in bed wide awake at night, worrying that I should have checked on that horse one more time. I've dreaded walking out to the barn, afraid I'd find the inevitable emergency or even the end I know is coming one day. I've missed countless family events, social engagements, vacations, or just the chance to get away for a quiet evening because I needed to be home to care for a chronically ill horse. No one was more invested in this horse than me, and no one could care for the horse better than me, right? And guess what, I got burnt out. I mean really burnt out.
Years ago, while sneaking away for just one overnight trip to celebrate my birthday, I was so stressed out about leaving a horse with a chronic illness that required special management that I couldn't even really enjoy myself. Every chance I had, I checked the barn cameras. I barely slept in that hotel room. I couldn't wait to get home, and it made me feel really sad that I couldn't enjoy that time with my family. That's when it hit me that something wasn't right. I suddenly had the epiphany that all the stress of caring for a chronically ill horse had taken a toll on me. I really wasn't at my best caring for that horse anymore. I was exhausted, and I felt overwhelmed. I needed to ask for help.
So, if what I'm saying resonates with you, keep reading. If it doesn't sound familiar, keep reading anyway. If you own horses long enough, this advice will come in handy one day.
If you are grappling with your horse's new diagnosis of a chronic illness, you are probably feeling pretty overwhelmed right now. The news that your horse has a disease that can't be treated or cured, only managed, is usually very difficult to absorb. We all have a lot of dreams wrapped up in our horses. Maybe you are dealing with the diagnosis of a foal you have waited for with excited anticipation, and now their entire future seems to be in jeopardy. You might ask yourself questions like- can they even have a meaningful life? How can I deal with this for the next 20+ years? Perhaps your horse is older, and you have shared a million happy memories together, and now you are facing a new reality. One in which your horse will likely struggle with a terrible disease in his last years.
Regardless of where you are in your relationship with your horse, the news of this diagnosis is simply devastating. You had so many plans, and now a huge detour looms ahead. Things are about to change. As you begin to wrap your head around what caring for a horse with a chronic illness means, I want to share some information with you regarding caregiver burnout.
In my experience, the journey of caring for a horse with a chronic illness is a marathon, not a sprint. Well, in all honesty, it’s really like a marathon and rollercoaster all wrapped up in one. There are so many ups and downs, and you will likely experience a wide range of emotions. While the days, weeks, and months ahead will be focused on figuring out the best way to care for your horse, it’s very important that you remember to care for yourself and guard against the stress that can lead to caregiver burnout.
WHAT IS CAREGIVER BURNOUT?
Caring for your horse is probably something you love to do and find incredibly rewarding. If you are like most horse owners, you probably treasure your barn time. Most owners enjoy even the most menial tasks like feeding, grooming, and mucking stalls. Sure, there have probably been times your horse has experienced an injury or illness, but caring for a horse with a chronic illness for years can test the resolve and stamina of even the most loving owners. Caring for a horse with a chronic illness requires a large commitment. It can be very labor intensive, particularly if your management setup does not facilitate the type of care your horse needs.
Caregiver burnout is a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion. Anyone who provides help to a person or animal may experience caregiver burnout. When you are caring for a horse with a chronic illness, it’s completely natural to feel a wide range of emotions, such as anger, frustration, helplessness, exhaustion, loneliness, and sadness. As you might imagine, caregiver stress (the emotional and physical stress of caregiving) is very common, but when it occurs for too long, it can lead to burnout. There are a few factors that may hasten or contribute to caregiver burnout:
Being the sole caregiver or lack of adequate help
Lack of control
Lack of support (physical or emotional)
SIGNS OF CAREGIVER BURNOUT
When you are in the midst of caring for a horse with a chronic illness, you may be so focused on your horse that you don’t even realize your own health and well-being are suffering. You might realize much too late that you need help. Here are some signs of caregiver burnout:
Feeling overwhelmed or constantly worried about your horse
Feeling guilty when your horse has a setback
Feeling afraid to leave your horse in the care of others
Feeling tired often
Getting too much sleep or not enough sleep
Gaining or losing weight
Becoming easily irritated or angry
Losing interest in activities you used to enjoy
Having frequent headaches, bodily pain, or other physical problems.
If you experience too much stress, especially over a long period of time, it can harm your physical and mental health. When stress becomes chronic, it can lead to depression or anxiety. Your friends and family members may see a change in your behavior, but if you are aware of the signs yourself, you may be able to recognize you are feeling overwhelmed and take steps to help yourself.
FINDING A NEW NORMAL
Unfortunately for you and your horse, things will never be quite the way they used to be, but you can find a new normal. One of the most important things you can do for both you and your horse is to take advantage of the growing number of resources and tools to help you care for your horse. And remember, if you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t be able to care for your horse. Here are some things you can do to avoid caregiver burnout:
Ask For And Accept Help. Provide your family and friends with a list of ways they can help you, and let them choose what they’d like to do. For instance, maybe your spouse or children can pitch in and give you an evening or even a whole day off from your chores. Perhaps a friend is willing to learn how to care for your horse so that your family can take a much-needed vacation or enjoy a fun activity together. If you have the financial resources, consider hiring additional help.
Focus On What You Can Provide. It’s very normal to feel you cannot provide the management your horse needs. You might not have the most ideal management setup for your horse, or perhaps you are in a boarding situation and have no or little control over your horse's daily care. Even a lack of finances can make a caregiver feel inadequate. Realize your guilt is irrational. No one is a perfect caregiver. There will be things that happen for no reason and to no one’s fault- including your own. Believe that you are doing the best you can and that you are making the best possible decisions for your horse.
Set Realistic Goals. You won’t figure out your horse’s ideal care and management strategy overnight. For most caregivers, this takes months or years and often changes as your horse progresses in age or as your horse's illness advances. You don’t have to build or buy the perfect setup to manage your horse right away, and you don't have to address any number of things your brain may be whizzing with right now. Trust that you will figure this out. Examine your care and management issues and prioritize them from most critical to least. Break large tasks down into smaller steps and tackle them as you are able. Make lists and establish a solid care and management routine for your horse. Finally, give yourself permission to say no to activities or requests from others if you are feeling too overwhelmed.
Get Connected. You are not alone in this journey. Unless your horse has a brand new disease that has just been discovered, someone has walked the path you are about to embark on. Surround yourself with others who are experiencing similar challenges as caregivers. Engage with others by sharing your own experience. Be brave enough to ask for advice. There is no shame in asking for help. Offer the same to others when you can but respect that each horse is on its own journey, what works for your horse will not work for every horse and vice versa.
Seek Professional Support and Educate Yourself. Make an effort to engage your veterinarian and ask for support and guidance so you can become confident in your caregiving. Having a great relationship with your veterinarian is a critical component of this journey. Knowledge is power- read, research, and learn all you can about your horse's illness. Understanding what is happening to your horse will help you feel empowered to act and respond to your horse’s needs.
Set Personal Health Goals. Take care of yourself first. Stay active but rest when you are tired. Eat well-balanced, healthy meals and drink plenty of water. Laugh- it’s good for the soul! One of the first signs of stress or environmentally induced depression is insomnia (trouble sleeping). Not getting enough quality sleep over a long period of time can cause health issues, and it can be dangerous. Talk to your healthcare provider if you have trouble getting a good night’s rest.
CELEBRATE YOUR WINS
Not every day is going to be hard. You will have good days, even wonderful days, with your horse. There are a lot of things you can do to manage your stress to prevent caregiver burnout. One of the most important things you can do is remember to celebrate your wins. A win may be something small such as finding a feeding strategy that works, going a certain amount of time without a major setback, enjoying a ride on your horse, or even celebrating another year when their birthday comes around.
Remember, the journey of caring for a chronically ill horse is like a marathon rollercoaster. There are going to be a lot of ups and downs. Just don’t forget to throw your hands in the air and smile every once in a while when things are going well!