Posted on June 25, 2021
The little blue horse I encountered in the round pen was simply shut down.
His eyes alternated between vacant and worried, his body always coiled tight and ready to flee at any moment, yet he stood stock-still as if thinking any wrong move would result in punishment. Perhaps in his past, that was the case. How could I reach him?
If I moved too fast or made a strange noise, I lost him to a fear induced race to get away from me or he’d literally backpedal at impressive speed. Even a task as simple as changing direction on the round pen would worry his eyes and I’d see him panic inwardly if he began to move in the opposite “wrong” direction from what I asked.
I also saw athleticism and a willingness to get things right, even if his response was overreactive.
We started from scratch.
It took a few sessions of progression and regression for me to find the magic ingredient.
Contact. Something we all need to survive, whether that might come from family or friends, co-workers, or a kind gesture from your regular server at your regular restaurant.
Many of us don’t have any true contact in our lives. We don’t feel heard or seen.
This horse was starved for contact and not only starved for it, somebody had broken the trust where his contact with humans had started. Those who were tasked to care for this horse chose rough & harsh contact over what he needed, which was gentle understanding. Does that sound familiar?
One morning I had Blue working at liberty (no ropes) in the round pen, for over half an hour he would not come in to me, just kept trotting trotting trotting around and around. Again, I found myself saying, “How can I help you?”
I turned my back on him and waited. I listened for him to stop and when he finally did I backed up slowly in his direction. I kept my energy non-threatening and quiet and finally was able to clip a lead rope onto his halter – the first point of contact.
That session progressed rapidly with his confidence growing, as the line between us helped direct him. Any time he got scared and pulled or ran we weren’t starting from scratch, we had a starting place with him at one end of a rope and me at the other, he learned he didn’t have to run in an endless circle to keep the pressure off.
With our line of contact between us, he learned that he was allowed & encouraged to stop and think through what I was asking of him. He could breathe and we began learning how to communicate with each other. If he made a wrong move, he learned he wasn’t going to be reprimanded, just gently corrected with a nod of the head or point of a finger and we moved on.
Over many months, the little blue horse and I have worked through many progressions and a handful of setbacks, our conversation getting clearer with each day. More on the little blue horse and the lessons he taught me to come.
Where do you get positive contact in your life? Where does negative contact live?
Do you have someone who listens to you, someone who you feel heard with?
Contact is a main tenant of Equine Gestalt Coaching. I believe learning to be a good listener and to be present with peoples pain (and horses pain) has made me not only a better friend and coach, but a better horse trainer as well.
How can you create more contact in your life?
Can you be a better listener? How has truly listening impacted your relationships? How has not listening impacted them? Dig into some of these, maybe journal about them, see what you discover.
Category: Gestalt, Gestalt & Horses, Horse Training, Horsemanship Tagged: colorado, emotional health, equine, Equine Gestalt Coaching, Equus, friends with horses, friendships, healthy relationships, horse behavior, Horse Lovers, Horse Training, horse woman, Horsemanship, horsemanship coach, listening, relationship coaching, relationships, this is real life
Posted on June 11, 2021
Recently, I was observing the handling of a few horses. I aim to observe through the lens of curiosity rather than judgment, though at times it’s certainly a challenge. There are many different approaches to horse training, everyone does it differently. My least favorite approach is domination, sometimes called “horse breaking” which happened to be what I was watching on this day.
As I observed this approach the trainer had chosen I reflected on what I knew of her – strong minded, strong willed, kind and recently out of an abusive relationship.
As the metal clip of the lead rope smashed into the bones under the horses face and the trainer hollered and railed at the horse for a minor misstep, I found myself pondering the irony; this woman too had been smashed in the face and made to cower, her spirit broken by the hands of another, yet here she was, doling out the same treatment to this horse.
Horses are large creatures, so it’s a common misconception that they don’t feel pain the same way we do, yet, a horse is so sensitive it can feel the touch of a fly land on his body. They bruise and bleed as we do.
Would the horse feel the throb of pain from the metal smacking into it’s chin or the sting from the whip on it’s rump long after the lesson was over? Probably. Worse than that, the horse will remember, just as we do, that those who cause us pain are not to be trusted.
In a similar way, when a person can’t get out of an abusive relationship, they modify their behavior to what causes the least pain & conflict; they keep their head down and “behave”.
If you have horses of your own, reflect for a moment; is that the kind of relationship you have with them? Do you demand their respect but give them none in return? Is your relationship based on fear of physical punishment?
Make no mistake, a horse trained by fear is not a horse you can trust with your life, and they surely don’t trust you with theirs.
On the flip side, Is Your Horse Abusing You?
As a trainer it’s not often that I encounter an “abusive” horse, but I’ve met a few.
These are horses who bite, strike, rear, step on you, shove into your space, or run you over because they’ve been taught, inadvertently, that that is how to get their way. Usually someone with good intentions but is uneducated in horses, or fearful, or lacking clear boundaries finds themselves with this type of horse. It’s often they’ve either inherited (bought) or created an insecure horse who looked to their human for safety and leadership and found them lacking, so they asserted themselves as leader by becoming a bully. It’s not the horses fault that circumstances led them here, but the behavior is still not acceptable.
I worked with one such horse who had his owner trained so well, that every time she asked him to do something and he blinked (not exaggerating) he’d get a treat, whether he did what was asked of him or not. This horse and horses like him, have no respect for personal space or boundaries and will run over their people when their backs are turned or when walking on a lead line, they’ll bite if they’re being ignored or they’re impatient or bored, sometimes even striking out with a front hoof or kicking out with a back hoof.
These “abusive” horses, are like giant children begging for structure. They need someone to step up, set some healthy boundaries, and build a partnership with them, where both parties have a voice and are respected, seen, and cared for.
If this sounds like your relationship with your horse, it’s time to step up into your power & begin setting boundaries. Your horse’s well-being depends on it.
Are you ready to stop spoiling or fearing your horse? Remember, no treats or scratches for bad behavior. Educate yourself on how to handle a horse without going to the other extreme of domination & abuse. It’s about creating a conversation and establishing trust & mutual respect. Your horse will appreciate you setting a personal space boundary, instead of allowing them to literally run you down and call the shots like an abusive lover.
In either situation, the best thing you can do is educate yourself on horses, read lots of books, watch videos, find what works for you and your horse, and if you’re clueless on where to begin, seek out a trainer to help you get on your feet & help you and your horse re-build your relationship.
Good Luck & Happy Trails!
Posted on November 11, 2019
I want to talk to you about Intuition and the importance of listening to yours when dealing with horses.
This sweet boy’s name is Rhett, he’s about 11 years old and his people contacted me to come out to work with him and their other horse Daisy.
They are Brand New to horses and eager to get the show on the road, but the horses knew what the humans don’t know and were taking advantage. At least, that was my initial impression.
At the time they contacted me, I was still recovering from the last casualty of not listening to my Intuition. As many of you know, I got bucked off of Blue, one of the horses I’d been working with for about 6 months.
I was working on the human client’s time schedule and getting pressured to get him under saddle ASAP, and I KNEW he wasn’t ready. Yet I pushed on anyway and we were having some success! And yet…..my gut still niggled at me that I was moving too fast.
So, on our 5th ride, fifteen minutes in, I made a very very small miscalculation that turned into a very very big disaster. I spooked the horse, got bucked off, and sprained my ankle on the way out of the saddle to the ground, pulling the horse down with me.
(He was not harmed physically, but we were both rattled and bless his heart, even after the whole fiasco he still tried his best to overcome his own fear and walk over to me when I couldn’t walk to get to him)
Not only did I set back his training, but because I couldn’t work for 6 weeks, I wasn’t getting paid for 6 weeks. My small mistake, cost us all big time.
This is lesson #1 in DO NOT IGNORE YOUR GUT.
Now, back to Rhett. Upon our first meeting in the round pen I noticed he had a significant limp coming from the shoulder area, so we wrapped up and I advised his people to call the vet, which they did. He got some time off to recover and we focused on their mare, Daisy, who was giving them some big sassy attitude.
In the weeks to come I’d work with both Daisy and Rhett. Things were progressing with Daisy, and her person was making headway learning how to handle Daisy’s “sassy mare” behavior with a firm, but kind hand.
Rhett was another story altogether. This horse was Aggressive. In the round pen, teeth were bared, his neck would snake like a stallion, the look in his eye was MEAN, and all this was just at a walk! My gut started to speak. Something isn’t right.
After a session or two of this, with Rhett striking at me, bucking at me and having an overall nasty disposition, I suggested getting a second opinion from another vet. He would get a limp when asked to pick up his speed in the round and I thought perhaps he was still in pain.
Something to know about horses is, they’re pretty steady creatures. A sudden personality change is an indicator that something is wrong, often pain related.
This very sweet and loving horse, that they had been able to ride initially, had seemingly overnight turned into a fire breathing dragon. This is NOT NORMAL.
Another thing to know about horses, they are not mean by nature.
Aggression stems from fear, insecurity, or pain, sometimes a combination, and they let us know that in the only way they know how- by acting out.
(Alternatively, a high spirited horse by nature may become sullen and sluggish, even depressed)
Yet, their vet said it was behavior, their farrier said it was behavior, “horse trainer” friends said it was behavior. So okay, put Intuition on the back burner, I don’t want these lovely people to have a vet bill for no reason, lets Up The Ante and see how it goes. Maybe, he just needs a firmer hand.
So I put my “Boss Mare” pants on and met aggression with aggression. Did it work? Well…..Sort of. His ears were no longer flat against his head but perked up on me as they’re supposed to be, with a soft eye, and he joined up like a puppy dog, following us around softly and quietly with no hint of bite or bark. (That’s the day the picture was taken). Did I feel good about this? Absolutely not. I am NOT an aggression meets aggression trainer.
The next time I was there, they said there was some improvement in his behavior (YAY!) but when I came back later in the week, he was back to his old shenanigans. Rhett had his owner scared to death. Not that I blame her, his behavior was scary and I didn’t want her alone in the round pen with him.
Meanwhile, Daisy, who was undergoing similar training was actually making steady progress and her behavior had improved tenfold. This was the deciding factor for me, that this issue, whatever it was and despite what other horse professionals were saying, was not behavior related.
I apologized to them for the possibility of a hefty vet bill, but could not, in good conscience, continue his training without ruling out the possibility that Rhett was in pain. I had waffled and warred with myself that I was reading the situation wrong too long already, it was time to listen to what my Intuition was screaming at me.
So they called the vet that I referred them to and set up an appointment for the following week.
I stood with Rhett’s person while we watched the vet go through the motions, and Rhett is being the very best boy (because of course he is!) and I’m dreading the moment they tell us there is nothing wrong with him physically. “These clients are going to think I’m a wacko and I don’t have a clue and I’m gonna get fired.” That’s the troll on my shoulder whispering in my ear.
Test after test he’s being put through, looking for lameness, arthritis, joint problems, ulcers, cracked or displaced ribs, everything I had gone through in my head and thought to mention that his behavior might be indicating. The (possible) result was both worse than I thought but also highly treatable.
The latest “behavioral issue” that had cropped up, was Rhett didn’t even want to be touched or groomed or blanketed, all of which he’d enjoyed previously. This led the vet to test for a disease called PSSM – polysaccharide storage myopathy.
All the signs were present that he was in fact, in considerable pain and his acting in aggression (his way of yelling, basically) was the only way he could tell us what we weren’t hearing.
I felt awful that I hadn’t listened sooner, but also relieved that this would be something we could get a handle on! Better yet, his owners were willing to put in the work, diet, and nutrition changes that are needed to manage PSSM. Lucky for Rhett.
This is could have been what had him headed for auction in the first place, before his people intercepted him.
Lesson #2 – DON’T IGNORE YOUR INTUITION!! And Listen to what the Horse is saying.
I wish I’d listened to myself sooner. Shame on me, for allowing my gut and my voice to be silenced because other “professionals” might know better. It’s only been about 6 weeks that we’ve been working but that was 4 weeks too long. When his behavior hadn’t improved at all by our second training session, I should have listened then. I should have listened to the horse.
So here in this post I fall on my sword and and admit my mistakes, so that when you hear your own inner voice telling you something isn’t right, you remember, and you trust yourself.
In both situations where I haven’t listened, there have been consequences that could have been fatal. Practice listening to yourself, even in the smallest circumstances.
If you think you might need a heavy coat that sunny day, don’t talk yourself out of it! Bring your heavy coat. If you think you might need to double check the water tank before the next snow, don’t ignore it! Trust those little niggles and follow through.
Your horses and your clients, and your friends & family will thank you later!