“Horses don’t have words, they have movement.” One of my favorite statements from Elsa Sinclair, creator of Freedom Based Training for horses, is also the basis of my own Equine Guided work with horses and the inspiration for my mission to determine “to ride or not to ride?” with Taj this winter. Horses operate and communicate on an energetic and sensate level, responding to the world with as little as the twitch of one, isolated muscle, or as much as the hurtle of a thousand pounds of coordinated muscle in any given direction. Human beings operate from that energetic and sensate plane as well, but all too often, we employ the ability to override intuition, instinct and our own authenticity according to the mandates of things like social conditioning, ulterior motives and ego.
When we ask a horse to help us solve or resolve something in our lives, bringing that question forward from the fibers of our being and with open curiosity, the horse replies with movements. It is up to us to feel into and interpret those movements in a way that resonates with us and makes sense to our brains. We can rely on the fact that horses never operate from a hidden agenda nor from a place of judgment, so what we receive is an unadulterated bodily response to the energy generated by our inquiry. If I want to know more about what is blocking me from a romantic relationship, I can go ask my horse, and she will tell me. Therefore, I steer clear of that topic and safely discuss business with her.
Taj is a 23-year-old paint mare whose stunning appearance and athletic potential landed her in the demanding, high-pressured environment of competitive show jumping and eventing at an early age. Though people may refer to show barns and the equestrians who frequent them as the “horse world,” the hours of rigorous training, trailering and competing as well as even more hours spent living in a box stall surrounded by the pent up stress and emotion of others, is most definitely a construct of and for the human world. When the humans surrounding these horses are not willing to listen to and accommodate the horses’ physical and emotional needs, the horses are left with finding their own ways to cope. Often that means developing what humans call “bad habits,” and in some cases, they will shut down.
This was the case with Taj. She learned that she had to pin her ears, stomp her feet, bare her teeth and resort to actually biting and kicking in order to get humans to listen. She learned not to trust easily because not only were humans terrible listeners, but they were unreliable and tended to abandon her. By the time I met Taj, she was 18 years old and had had six owners and many more riders training on her. Instead of learning to accept multiple riders she did not know, she feared them and their lack of listening skills, and had become a master at shutting down.
It is no wonder why she immediately took to Equine Guided work with people: this work is all about humans listening to horses. I see a contented, proud being when Taj is engaged in working with people – a far cry from the angry, withdrawn mare she learned to be in order to defend herself against things like painful, ill-fitting saddles and people brandishing pitchforks and riding crops at her in her stall.
Taj had one owner for six years who did listen. She loved her and learned from her as she overcame past fears of her own. It was this woman who tracked Taj to me a few months after I adopted her. The happy, confident horse I see doing coaching work is the horse this woman saw jumping. “If you let Taj loose in an arena with a jumps course, she would take herself over the jumps,” she told me. “She hated dressage, but would tolerate it for 20 minutes if she knew we could go jump as her reward!” But a career-ending break in her left hind has kept her from jumping since she was 14.
The horse that I met hated the prospect of riding so much that she bit and crushed the tip of my finger as I was trying to saddle her. One might think I ought to have taken that as a clear “no, I do not want to ride ever again.” But I look back at my hastiness in saddling, my assumptions that her ear pinning was an idle threat, and my not-so-finely tuned listening skills in general, and I believe I did not offer riding in a way that she was able to accept and try again. I did not realize the extent of her emotional block against the prospect of being ridden, particularly because once I made it on, she seemed to be fine – at least with trail riding. The arena is another story.
I do understand that horses always have a reason for the things they say, for the movements they make. For six years, I have diligently paid attention to her physical health – from digestive health to musculoskeletal restriction and alignment. She has had visits from chiropractors, nutritionists, massage therapists, cranial sacral practitioners, acupuncturists, osteopaths, reiki practitioners and animal communicators. Oh, and traditional veterinary care, dentistry and hoof trimming. No one has ever come up with a physical reason (or a psychic reading) indicating that she should not be ridden.
Knowing that riding is a great way to keep a horse fit, and knowing that she did, at one point, demonstrate enjoyment around some form of riding, it is my mission to offer Taj the option to ride again, and to find out if there are aspects of it that she might enjoy. I have begun conversations with Taj through movement, and I do my best to listen more than I speak.
I am sharing two videos here, the first from April when I started these conversations about riding in a Freedom Based Training context, and the second from yesterday in November, 2017. I had tried to understand whether I could get Taj to accept saddling and mounting in various ways in the past, but was not able to have the kind of conversations that we are getting to in Freedom Based Training. To learn more about this unique method of training and deepening your bond with horses, visit: http://www.tamingwild.com/ where you can read about the original documentary film, Taming Wild, and Elsa Sinclair’s development of this approach.
Since last winter, I have been studying Freedom Based Training with Elsa, and blending these concepts with my Equine Guided work. In this way, I have been able to make more progress with Taj on her defensive habits and her shutting down in one year than in all the other five I’ve been with her. I’ll be documenting our efforts and sharing it here as we progress and discuss the question together, “To ride or not to ride?”
Post session selfie with hay.