In part 1 and part 2 of Am I Safe? I wrote about some observations and questions that connect to conversations I’ve been listening to around the neurological system and healing. Hopefully in the wrap up below (part 3) I can give some thoughts on what we can do with these questions.
First the elephant… It is very hard to see borderline (or outright) abuse happening in situations where very clearly the people involved see it as normal. The more I learn the more clarity comes with my own herd- and the world around me. I am grateful for the horses in my own herd because they are constantly reminding me that humility is my superpower… this doesn’t mean I am amazing at humility, instead it means I can always choose humility and every time I do it empowers me and those around me where pride is ALWAYS ALWAYS destructive. I am convinced it is pride and ego that are the deepest roots of the pain we cause horses day to day.
Early in my career riding endurance with Khaleesi I was certain she was not giving me her best (she’s being lazy) and I was determined on this particular ride to insist she give me all she had to see what we were capable of. Around the last loop of the ride she really began to slow down. I INSISTED she get moving! We only had so many miles left: you can do this, come ON why are you slowing down you are not that tired! I know you! You have more to give!!
The more I insisted the more she resisted. I can still feel the red-angry frustration that was welling up in me, I was not thoughtfully making a decision anymore I was infuriated that she was refusing to get this done. I grabbed a stick and whipped her butt- I MEAN IT!
She began to comply and try (this story still breaks my heart to retell it) and I began to notice something…. When the ground got sandy and soft she ran and trotted her best, and she always slowed down when the ground got hard and rocky – still trying to show me she was going, but CLEARLY not as comfortably. She wasn’t softly giving me her everything, she was doing the whole thing with brace and not exactly an attitude (she never threatened to buck or fight me) but not a willing happy heart.
It began to come together and I softened. No, I was right she wasn’t tired. Her feet hurt.
She was in pain.
We were now close to the finish and I let her walk every rocky surface and she would trot on sand- but the damage was done. Both physically and mentally. When we got to the finish, it was a hot day, but it took her 20 minutes to come down in heart rate. We used ice water and hand walked her. This horse generally pulses if she is fine in minutes after cantering into camp. The ONLY reason she does not pulse is physical pain. There have been three times in our career I’ve had pulse issues. We did get her down in enough time to final vet. She didn’t look great and got a “C” on gait but the vet noted it was not clearly a lameness- she was just looking all around exhausted so we got a completion.
Grace I did not deserve.
We got back to the trailer and I was devastated. What had I done? Ego. Pride. Never again.
I learned a lesson that day and in the years since I have NEVER repeated that by forcing Khaleesi to give me more than she was willing and able.
The trailer loading debacle I wrote about in part 2 was that NEVER again moment between Wyoming and me. I tried to use force to move her forward in the process. That choice that jacked up my trailer, could have gotten her killed (as she broke off the chest bar leaving enough lead rope to hang herself over a hinge like a fish on a line) and left me some wicked rope burns to remember it by. Again I know I got off easier than I deserved.
I took this picture that day when I “hung up her halter” for a time. I comitted to work within her threshold regardless of what it was and not to listen to the voices that say I should just “get it done” by force, whatever the thing is. I did not use a halter with her for months.
Now that I write this… some of that deep trauma in her poll and neck that she was resisting could very well be residual from that wreck I caused.
So there are two of my most dramatic, but not the only, moments of when my ego or pride and ignorance created trauma for a horse in my own herd. But for the grace of God go I again over those paths and every year I learn more I can look back more recent than I’d like and see ignorance or impatience creating problems I preach so hard against.
Humility is my superpower.
Yet humility does not mean never speaking about what I see, and what I’m learning because it might create discomfort. It means I don’t do it in a “me against you” conversation, but always a “I am with you” conversation. With compassion. And with the knowledge that we can only do the best we know at the time. And pride is so insidious- it attacks at a deep root level and is very hard for any of us to see in the mirror, and easy for others to spot looking in. My best advice if you care to grow, is to find a few people you trust and give them a hunting license to help you see what you cannot.
In all fairness, I still fail a lot. But I refuse to quit.
In the case of Hope and other horses I see in broken down states, I don’t think any one of the people in her line was an evil genius trying to wreck a beautiful creature physically, emotionally and mentally. I think every one of them wanted what most horse people want with a horse. They want good things right? And yet people created the deep rooted problems in this mare by ego and ignorance. It’s how most problems start. Not one person in her line of owners took the time to listen to her and then do what it took to help her. They saw her as obstinate and unwilling. I can say she is neither of those. She had finally been… broken.
What then can we do?
I asked the question in part 2: What can I do to make Wyoming feel safe enough to let go of her trauma? I will never had a successful relationship with her while her nervous system is on overdrive. She cannot communicate, connect or learn if she is only on survival/react mode. Wyoming wears her emotions on her outside. We always know how she’s feeling, and she doesn’t have emotional stability and well being. On the other side of the coin is Hope. She is equally traumatized but her reaction is to withdraw and shut down, comply as much as she is able. She hides deep inside herself. Horses willing to go this route are often considered respectful and obedient. Bombproof and ideal… until they simply cannot.
I had hoped to find another expert conversation to tell me in a nutshell how to fix all this for my herd. No such luck. Instead I heard another quote ringing in my ears:
You cannot come to a horse intentionally thinking you want to fix something. If you come with the goal of fixing it your horse will internally brace against it and you won’t be able to fix it. Instead let go of the idea that you are fixing something and simply find a little place to release tension here or help them to relax there and before you know it thinks get better and you have fixed things. You have to let go of your agenda in order to help the horse.Jim Masterson
I have three personal takeaways from all of this. The order isn’t key as much as they are all interconnected so they work together in a synergistic way. I trust you can sort out what it all means for you and your horse journey.
1. Get better than you currently are at understanding horse communication. And put it into practice by listening better. Everyone says that of course they listen to their horse. Just as no one was setting out to destroy Hope earlier in her life, my experience is those owners would say the same thing- of course they understand horses and of course they listen, many many people who have own horses and ride horses do not have accurate understanding of what is going on in their horse’s communication. I see most riders- especially ones who have “been around horses all their lives” making assumptions about what they think the horse is saying that is often pretty inaccurate. This brings up another quote:
Horses survive by being incredibly adaptable. They adapt to the way we work with them. They are so adaptive we often miss what’s really there because they are so good at accommodating.Jim Masterson
Keep in mind have a real disadvantage in this from the start because of how accommodating horses are by nature, but that is a survival skill not a healthy way of being.
Horse people have taken pure communication from the horse like ear pinning, evasion (evasion can be trying to step away from mounting, bucking, rearing, spooking, running away etc), pawing, pushing, nipping and kicking and turned those into “unwanted behaviors” that we train out so they can be “good horses”. This begins early on and then is continued through their lives. We have taken away their negative communication channels. We as a culture training our horses not to share when they have a problem. No one wants a horse to bite them including me. If we were more adept at seeing early subtle signs they wouldn’t have to bite us in order for us to understand.
Part of helping a horse to understand it is safe is ensuring a horse feels seen and heard. Accurately. Acknowledge when your horse is trying to communicate she is not OK and see if you can find out why. Then commit to a change- do something about the problem.
2. Accept that one cannot separate behavioral (mental and/or emotional) from physical issues.
Of course there are issues that begin behavioral and there are issues that stem from physical problem but it is always more complicated and they will always connect. If you have a physical issue that isn’t addressed it will always show up as a behavioral issue. If your horse is experiencing physical discomfort they will do things like refuse to make that jump, not be as eager to do upward transitions, try to evade being caught, pin their ears or nip while being groomed or saddled, etc.
On the other side, if your horse is having mental or emotional issues (isn’t confident to leave the herd, confusion over what is being asked, feels like it will never get released or there is never a right answer, is over stimulated) that will show up in time in the physical body as ulcers, joint or tendon injuries due to not moving in a relaxed and proper form for the work, or acute injuries from flight responses when they aren’t thinking but reacting and get themselves hung up, cut up, or in some other wreck.
If you always assume there are connections between behavior and the body you will have more data to work with in assessing what is really going on and have a leg up on finding problem before they are a big financial and time investment to sort out.
3. Assume your ego and pride are your biggest enemy and that both are working against you and then seek out ways to fight against them. Humility is your superpower too.
We all see our horses as friends (well anyone reading this blog for sure does), and we want to do what’s best for them. That is our high value (high values are how we talk, core values are what we walk). I hear most people say “I always put the horse first.” It’s in the core value where things get dicey. Are you willing to do what is best for your horse when it costs you the resource you have least of… for some that is money, for some it is time.
I was fascinated listening to Anja Beran who has been teaching classical dressage in Germany for over 25 years. She has been a voice against poor training in modern dressage (at very high levels) and is a great to seek out in the conversation of creating a powerful willing horse that can compete in any discipline much longer than the norms we see today. When the interviewer asked her how long it usually takes her to work with a client horse that comes in with some trouble (when you get good at successfully fixing problems, you see a fair amount of them) and even I was a bit surprised at her answer: Well, you see usually we find it is a minimum one year, and often we will keep them and work with them up to three years to help them come back into a healthy way of moving again.
Here in America we expect results in a weekend to maybe 30 days on the outside. Unfortunately you can get a horse looking to an uneducated eye (that would be 80% of the horse-person population if you go with the rule of the Pareto principle) in 30 days training, but there are so many holes in these horses that someone is eventually going to crash through physically, mentally, emotionally or all of the above- it’s only a matter of time.
Anja explained that a very high level circus in Germany uses her exclusively to train their Lippizaner team and she says they bring them to her for seven years. The reason they are willing to invest that kind of time she explains is because they perform well into their thirties when they are trained properly. A healthy balanced horse will also cost much less over time in vet bills and missed work.
Money is a limited resource for most of us. It is true we have to make decisions thoughtfully when it comes to how much we can allocate to a horse, but I have seen people throw tons of cash around if they believe they will get a quick fix to a problem. Time is usually the more treasured resource and we appear as a culture not willing to give our beloved horses the time they desperately need to learn how to carry their bodies properly, to think and make choices instead of hurry up and react to my pressure (obey) so we can get on with what I want to do. We also need time – to get better in our own knowledge and skills so we can actually help the horses instead of always talking about how they are so good at taking care of us.
And so I circle all the way back to that first question… why is that horses — when they are given more supportive care and a place that will hear them ask for help do they appear to get so much worse?
From the neurological perspective I have been learning more from, I think when they begin to feel safe they will begin to heal. And no healing can take place without the revelation of brokenness. One must feel in order to heal. With any person or horse or any living creature- survival often means setting aside a wound in order to get through now. When we are given a safe place to peel off the survival mechanisms the only road to wholeness is by revealing the brokenness and then letting it go or getting the professional help required to walk through the healing.
It makes more sense to me now that it would take Hope some time to believe she was in a safe enough place to fall apart. It also makes sense that Wyoming has deep layers she does not feel she is safe to release yet. Knowing that means I can be more attuned to making her feel heard and that her worries and concerns while I might think on human terms are overblown and inaccurate, to her they are enough to jack up her nervous system and that’s all that matters.
In both cases I have come to see that I cannot approach this as a new (oh that ego is tricky!) goal for them. I am a driven person and I can take their healing and turn it into it’s own goal that then becomes a new source of stress and pressure.
When Hope first came back from her stay with Dr. Hancock I was very excited to see her bloom into a healthy mare. I was great at doing all the things I was told would help her recover. But she seemed to be getting worse after a week or so. I was able to recognize that I had dumped my expectations of her coming into health on her and she was straining under the pressure. I tried to let her know that I believe I had done all I could for her professionally and now it was up to her to get better. I would help all I could but she would need to go at her own pace in her own way. I was committed to be with her and support her.
She has good days and bad days, and stress is more likely to create a bad day. I don’t always have control over stress in a horse herd. My healthier horses are less affected by it. Overall I see clear trends toward better. She more stable in her balance. She is moving better in her body. She has less mucous and infection recurrence. She is brighter in the eyes. She has more “personality” and preferences coming out. When we brought her home in December of 2020 I would never have guessed she could have so many deep layers of brokenness it came close to costing her life; she held it together pretty well for months. The very limited work she was for a few months in could not have caused the depth and seriousness of her condition. The downhill freefall actually came while she was in pasture rest with her herd through her second winter here. A place she probably felt the most safe in a long time.
I look forward to what healthy Hope will be like. I look forward to her becoming more her own horse and getting to know her. And I will continue to find ways to help Wyoming believe she can let go of the trauma her past life and I have caused. I will get better at hearing their concerns and answering how I can. I will assume less and be curious more. I will honor them with the time they need and set aside my own goals and plans for them regardless of what people on the outside think. And hopefully I will look back at this series someday with a more complete picture and have some corrections to make-
For now, I think that is the best I can do.
I would like to conclude by bringing up that one cannot give what one does not have. I also have seen in myself wounding and brokenness that made it hard for me to be the whole healthy balanced person who could set aside my ego and goals and the external pressures at work on me to have the grounding and confidence to allow these horses to fall apart. Because there was a time when them falling apart was too close to my own identity and I could not be the stabilizing factor and have the patience and grace to not need the horse to perform for me in order to make it’s life worthwhile. I also consider the complexity of a world of wounded people who are part of the cycle with traumatized horses. I hope someday HH will be able to help encourage increasingly more powerful horses AND powerful people in richness of mental, physical and emotional health.
Thank you for reading this series and I hope it gives you some things to chew on and encouragement to find ways to improve your own herd toward increasing excellence, connection, and deeper relationship.