I Woke Them Up On Purpose, Horses are Not Bicycles
Recently I have had the opportunity to bring everything I have learned so far into a new situation. Two different resorts, one also a summer camp, have hired me to manage their horse facilities and horses.
The first resort was calling itself a “Wellness” Resort and asked me to help them offer their guests a healing experience with horses. Given that I am a certified Equine Professional, have partnered with 8 different licensed mental health providers over the last 9 years, and have had the opportunity to interact with horses daily for the last 21 years, I have witnessed time and time again the life-changing power for healing that horses can offer to humans. I have also managed a horse ranch outside of Austin, Texas since 1999 and facilitate mindfulness intensives, retreats for groups such as breast cancer survivors and team building for multiple businesses. I knew that given the right resources, this could be an amazing journey for an organization that had never owned live animals before.
The first thing I explained to the Director of Programming was that in order for the experiences with horses to truly be life-changing and provide real healing for our guests, the horses have to be willing participants. Just as we don’t feel like making new friends when we have the flu, horses are not able to consent to interacting authentically with humans when their brains are stuck in fight/flight/freeze as a result of abuse, neglect, or even simply not being seen or understood. Therefore, my first order of business was to evaluate the herd, begin to provide high quality nutrition and veterinary care to meet their physical needs, ensure consistency and routine to meet their emotional needs, and introduce intentional interaction to slowly engage their intellect and curiosity. All of these factors were set goals to settle their nervous systems and dislodge them from disassociation related to coping and repeatedly being pushed past their windows of tolerance. More on this later.
Given that the current management team had never taken care of horses and the person they had employed previously was not an expert in horse management, the horse herd was in bad shape when I arrived. They were all standing away from each other, with their hind end facing the area where the round pen and offices were located. Their coats were dull, their eyes were not “awake”, they showed no curiosity at my presence, and they moved around listlessly. Every one of those very obvious signs immediately signaled to me that these guys needed help.
Horses are hard-wired for relationships and healthy connection. They will normally seek out each other for safety, are curious about new things being introduced into their environment and display body language in response to stimulus, such as moving ears, swishing tails, turning their heads to look etc.. These horses displayed none of these behaviors. This was in August; they were covered with flies, several had serious skin conditions that had been scratched raw, thus many had bleeding wounds. Yet, no attempt to swat at the flies.
In these moments, it is vitally important to stop and check in with your heart and soul. In order to move past my rage and sadness to help these horses, it was important that I recognized where these horses were, stuck in survival mode, and I must take my time “waking” them up. I had heard stories about how they had been treated, so I knew that it would take a lot of patience and mindfulness to meet them where they were, individually, and start the healing process.
The managers of the resort were clamoring for trail rides. Now, I am a trail rider, so I am not bashing trail riding or facilities that offer trail riding to the public. However, I do know the toll that putting a dysregulated and unbalanced human has on horses and the pain that some are in constantly due to ill-fitting saddles and sore bodies.
Every single person that I work with at my ranch and at other facilities has the story of the trail horse that ran off with them or one of their friends or relatives. A seemingly “bomb-proof” horse suddenly bolting blindly towards the barn at the slightest unplanned noise or movement, possibly causing injury and a traumatic memory, due to the horse living in survival mode. In some instances, including the resort I was working for, a horse had been brutally beaten for this behavior, sometimes in front of guests. As a result, I was not excited about offering trail rides and attempting to provide healing and life-changing equine experiences for guests. I knew that these horses would go right back to “checking out” the moment we put guests on their backs, and everyday would be working towards gaining back the trust in order to request connection and promise safety.
I told my director from the beginning that in order to provide these powerful interactions with horses, I would have to have a herd of horses that was not regularly “used” for trail riding. I wanted to give those sensitive horses a reprieve from the thankless job of trail rides while making available the more resilient and extroverted horses for guests to ride.
Each horse I have interacted with has a different personality from the last. They are just like us: their genetics, life experiences, and sensitivity make them all unique beings. Each must be seen in order to understand their strengths and weaknesses and listen to their requests. The best horsemen/women are those that realize the barrel horse they were sitting on hates running barrels. They then responsibly sell that horse to someone who would take it on endurance rides because it absolutely LOVED being out on the trail competitively.
Getting back to the resort, the first thing I did was donate the cheap horse feed they were feeding previously to a charitable organization. We provided the horses with a high-quality forage-based feed and high quality coastal round bales with hay nets. I also started them on various supplements to build their immune systems. The horses were all treated for parasites, given vaccinations, and had their teeth floated. I fired the farrier who was more concerned about how pretty their hooves were than the fact that every single one had thrush deep in their hooves. I took off their shoes and allowed their frogs and soles to recover, purchased trail boots, and had our natural trimmer put Epona shoes on the horses that had thin soles and unhealthy frogs. We purchased fly predators to naturally rid the environment of flies and treated the horses skin conditions so they were not in so much pain. In addition, I hired an Osteopath to examine and treat every horse with a plan to have those who needed it adjusted regularly. We tended to the horses that exhibited signs of ulcers and any soreness and lameness.
In less than two weeks, I began seeing signs of life. Two of the geldings became inseparable and the horses were moving around more and staying together. When I entered the paddock, most of the horses began acknowledging that I was present and even approached me with curiosity. I did not want to force my agenda on these horses, so I did not walk up and pet them. I waited for them to approach and touch me first. One of the geldings, a large bay retired roping horse, still stood head down in the corner, but most had started the process of “waking up” (we found out he had ring bone and his hoof was in bad shape, so he was in pain).
I am certified as an Equine Professional through Natural Lifemanship. Our methodology is to ask for connection and consent/cooperation, so I started slowly working with the horses utilizing my training and knowledge. In every situation, I asked for authentic connection before haltering, leading, working with, and treating the horses. I had decided not to ride any of these horses until they were “awake”, meaning they were actively engaged in their environment and displaying horse behaviors that indicate that they are thinking and not reacting. This is something they can only do when they are out of fight/flight/freeze and physically not in pain.
We started a physical therapy schedule for each of them, asking them to walk and trot over poles. We fit them for saddles and bridles and went over the trail to be sure that it was safe and free of dangerous obstacles. Meanwhile, I was planning and scheduling programs, working with horses one on one, and supervising repairs to the facility to be sure the horses and humans were safe.
One morning, about a month after I arrived, I drove into work to see the horses playing with each other! They ran to the fence when I walked up and asked for attention. Our interactions with the horses became engaging and fun. Their reactions to outside surprising stimulus was appropriate rather than shutting down or freaking out. The farm manager had an amazing experience with our lead mare, who had historically been a “stubborn trouble-maker”. She carefully and authentically connected in a way that brought a huge smile and tears of joy to someone who had never had such an experience with a horse.
My heart was lifted. These beautiful and sentient beings were “awake”! Their brains had, for the most part, released the nervous system from a hyper aroused state of fight/flight/freeze, and they were now experiencing stimulus in real time and reacting appropriately. Now, they were safe to ride and were giving their consent to interact with our guests in equine experiences. Not long after, this herd of horses and I parted ways. Nonetheless, I will never forget what they taught me and will always carry with me how vital it is that no matter the circumstances, we must recognize not only that these animals are not bicycles. We actually have the responsibility to them and to our guests to provide these service animals the highest and best opportunity to be well-cared for and allow them to interact with us safely.
In Part 2 I will talk more about windows of tolerance and the nervous system.