And I am Glad That I Did! Horses Aren’t Bicycles or Bombproof! Part 3
In addition to solving the dangerous incidents with the horses occurring at the resort, the owner had asked me to evaluate the horses in order to determine if some should be sold or retired. Given that they all were “used” as trail horses and camp horses, it was important for me to figure out if these were jobs that they liked. As you can imagine, these types of jobs are very hard on horses. These animals who thrive on relationships are asked to carry around unbalanced predators that they have never met before. In addition, some facilities are not aware that the saddle should fit the horse comfortably in order for the horse to engage its back and comfortably carry weight. Saddles that squeeze shoulders, sit on the wither, and cut into the flank of a horse cause the horse to brace against the pain. This discomfort leads to problems not only with back pain, but with neck pain, poll pain, joint pain and raw sores on their skin. Since every horse at this facility seemed to have experienced ill-fitting saddles and bits that were backwards in their mouths, it was a foregone conclusion that they had experienced not-so-nice treatment at the hands of humans. I will label this neglect as opposed to abuse; this was neglect due to ignorance.
It was at this point that I really had to wrestle with my own emotions. The more I learn about horses, the harder it is for me to exist in the horse world knowing that horses are sensitive and desire connected relationships and that they simply want to partner for safety. Humans arrogantly control these animals with force and fear because they are so big and can be intimidating to someone who is ego-centered. When we don’t stop pushing them past their ability to cope with the pressure, their only choice is to go into their survival brain and most simply freeze. This is where we leave them because it is “safer” to have a robot than a thinking, 1,200 pound animal. Well, here’s the rub: I don’t agree with that. I know from experience that my horses are healthier and safer when they are thinking. After years and years of this “freezing”, eventually we push them too far. Since they can’t act in flight, then they fight. Fight looks like bucking, bolting, bracing, biting and other behavior that is not “normal” for a horse that is in a safe environment.
So, back to my project. How do you evaluate a horse to determine if it is burned out? How do you determine whether a horse has the ability to stay present and safely carry unbalanced, checked-out humans? You get to know the horses. You spend time with them on the ground, in their paddock/pasture, hand graze them, and teach them to trust. Then add a saddle that fits, a bridle with a kind bit, or no bit, and get on top of that horse. Everything you need to know is right there, with that horse.
Every morning, I would feed the horses and spend time watching them. This gave me time to evaluate them with no pressure or intention. I simply shared space with them. This allowed them to get to know me as well, and each day there was more light in their eyes and curiosity as to why I was there.
Then, I started the process of building a relationship. I approached as a horse would approach another horse. I placed my energy, or core (chi) on the horse’s flank to ask for connection. When they would acknowledge my request, I would release the pressure. I then would ask for movement from the horse. A turning of the head, a turn towards me. Once I knew they understood that I was not forcing my intention on them, they relaxed and most looked at me with a surprised “she speaks our language!”
Once they were willingly acknowledging my request for connection, I asked for attachment, or movement together. Once the horse would turn and step towards me, I would continue the request for attachment and ask the horse to take a few steps with me. Eventually, the horses and I were walking together around the pasture. I was in their world; they had all of their choices available, and they chose relationship with me instead of eating their round bale or hanging out with their friends.
Now it was time to add a halter and lead rope to my request. I would again ask for connection, but this time, I would approach their shoulder with a halter and lead rope and allow them to sniff them. Then, they could walk away or allow me to put the halter on. They all stood for me when I asked about placing the halter on their head. Since I had already done some much work with attachment, or movement together, leading the horses was simple and took little pressure.
Then I present the grooming tools and tack. Interestingly, the moment some of the horses stepped out of their pasture they would disassociate, or check out. So, I would intentionally ask them to come back to me. I would scratch a wither, speak, and make sure that I was present in the moment with them. Once I had them back, we would continue to the area outside the barn where I would groom them. I would carefully monitor their behavior to be sure that they were staying present with me. When I noticed them checking out, I would ask for connection again and then go back over the area when they had checked out. Most had experienced pain due to ill-fitting saddles, so most of them flinched along the back and cinch area. One gelding pinned his ears with any grooming at all anywhere on his body. One mare was fine with grooming lightly, but would pin her ears with any pressure anywhere on her back or cinch from a curry comb.
I moved on to approaching the horses with a saddle pad and saddle. Every single one would check out the moment I approached with a saddle. So at the distance they checked out, in most cases within their flight zone, I would ask for connection before I moved any closer to them. Once I had connection throughout, I would gently place the saddle pad on their back, evaluate whether they were still present, and then would gently place a saddle on their back. Every single one of the horses would check out when I placed a saddle on their back.
Our big draft mare seriously threatened to bite your face off if you approached her with a saddle, but I didn’t get mad at her. For years, her broad back had been hurt by too-small saddles. I didn’t blame her for finding a solution by “fighting” with us. We slowly worked with her every day, waiting for her to relax, before approaching closer with the saddle pad. Every day we got a little bit closer until finally she would stand without bracing and threatening to bite. (As an aside, when the osteopath examined her, every single vertebrae and rib was out).
Next on the agenda was saddle fitting. In order to properly fit a saddle to a horse, it must be laid on the horses back without a pad. A pad will not make a saddle fit better. This particular retreat center had synthetic saddles, with plastic trees, several of which were broken. The cinches were rusted shut, as the horses had been allowed to stand in full sun for 10 plus hours with no break. The sweat had rusted the cinches closed. Again, breathing and staying grounded was the target when I discovered this atrocity.
I donated all of the synthetic saddles to a non-profit for a fund-raising activity, and proceeded to purchase used leather western saddles that fit, with thin wool pads for comfort. I made sure that the saddles cleared the horse’s withers, weren’t too long to rub against their hips and back, and did not sneak up on their shoulders as they moved.
As I mentioned previously, the bits on the horse’s bridles were all backwards. So, I made the decision to throw away all of the old bits. Most were rusted anyway and very severe. These old arthritic trail horses did not need harsh bits anyway, and from my experience, most riders don’t really understand how a bit works anyway. Our guests certainly did not know how to use them to communicate with our horses. All horses were fit with bitless bridles.
Finally, riding the horses. We continued the process of connecting in the pasture, leading with connection, grooming without checking out, tacking up fully present, and then leading into the arena. Every horse would check out when being led into the arena as well. I spent quite a bit of time connecting with them on the ground, leading them around the arena, and paying close attention to the areas where they really checked out and pulled toward the gate to get out of the arena.
Most of the horses immediately checked out when mounted. They went back to the “norm”. We intentionally kept asking them to come back. Some were able to stay present right away while being ridden, some were not able to stay engaged for more than a few minutes. Every single one of them had their “spot” on the arena rail where they would go robotically when they got scared. Not one of those horses bucked, bolted, or did anything aggressive. If you will remember, the reason I was hired was because the horses had been bucking, biting, and dangerously bolting, injuring multiple guests. We rode the horses in the arena and on the trail and experienced no dangerous behavior at all.
Every horse was handled with connection prior to any request. The horses reacted to this in interesting ways. Oftentimes their expression was “really? You speak my language?” I can’t describe the feeling inside my heart when each of them finally, willingly and calmly consented to my request for connection and attachment. Some were easy, with a gregarious personality and curiosity, and some were huge gifts to me, given how badly they had been neglected.
Now the question was who was burned out and who was okay to stay at the retreat? One beautiful black gelding, who had suffered a broken leg, had had enough. He would connect and was a beautiful soul, but the moment you approached him with intention and a halter, he was overcome with fear. I had a vet examine him. He had ringbone on one front leg, and he was in pain when carrying weight. Most likely this had been overlooked, and he was ridden anyway. It is amazing how many horses are actually in pain, yet they hide it so well. Many horses I’ve worked with, and brought back from being shut down, who presented to me originally perfectly “sound” were in fact injured. Once they were safe and had allowed for vulnerability and connection, they would show me their pain. This particular gelding was rehomed to a retirement home and is living out his days with his donkey best friend and a grassy pasture.
Another horse that I re-homed was a little bay pony. She had been part of a package deal with one of our sweet older mares. She had no training at all but was perfectly happy following horses on the trail. The problem was, when something unexpected happened, she was completely unaware of what the rider was communicating to her, things like “whoa!”. If you asked her for more than a walk, she would freeze in place. I asked around and learned that an employee on site, who fancied himself a horse trainer, had been “training” her. He had a severe bit and spurs, so I drew the conclusion that this little mare was simply scared to death and confused. I decided to re-home here to a wonderful home, and now I am happy to report she is carrying around her own girl with joy!
I could seriously go on and on with each of the horses, and their personalities, how much they grew and changed and the amazing success of our summer camp program and equine experiences! Suffice it to say, these horses were safe all along. They simply needed someone to give them consistent quality care so they felt better physically, a routine in place that included connection, attention to their responses, and tack that fit to avoid pain when riding. Slowing everything down and understanding what each horse was telling me, recognizing burnout, confusion and physical pain as reasons for dangerous behavior and meeting their needs, provided this facility with safe, healthy horses, which in turn provided safe experiences for campers and guests.