When Horses Have Choices

 

Amy arrived for her first riding session on a mostly cloudy December morning. The day before, I had mentioned the forecast showed it would be a beautiful day, and we both noted it was slightly cooler and cloudier than we had expected. I was feeling slightly unsettled. There were some reasons I could think of right away when she asked me what was unsettling, but even as I shared them, I felt there might be something else, something more difficult to pinpoint.

Since Amy had been coming for equine guided sessions for most of the year, she knew very well that a person’s inner state and emotions have a significant impact on the horse, and that acknowledging the truth about how you’re feeling is crucial to being in alignment and building trust. Today we planned to do a simple riding session, in part to give her a different experience from the one she had as a child in riding lessons. Her instructor was gruff and demanding, the experience was all about controlling the horse, making the horse do whatever she asked. One time, the instructor was yelling into the barn at her to hurry up, to just cinch up the girth on Bluebell quickly and get outside. When Amy did as she was told, hurriedly drawing up the girth around the horse’s body as tightly as possible, the horse spun and kicked her to the ground.

I’ve spoken to many people who have troubling memories of the riding lessons they had as children. They were usually taught only the mechanics of how to ride, and very little about understanding or caring for the horses. Most have a story like Amy’s, in which they were kicked, stepped on, or bucked off the horse, and that is the thing they remember most. I was lucky to have been taught about horses and riding by my cousin, Mary, and what I remember most is that she taught me to always thank the horse.

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So on this particular day, I wanted to build on everything Amy had been practicing in listening to and communicating with horses through the equine guided work, which included basic ground work, and carry it into tacking up and riding. In light of the fact that I was feeling unsettled, I thought it best that we start with hand walking the horses around the fields and through the woods, and letting them graze in the long grass while we spent some time just being with them while they enjoyed themselves. Winter pastures get eaten down and beaten down to a muddy pulp, and so grazing in the open fields is, quite literally, a field day for them.

We also used the walking and grazing time as a time to practice conscious breathing and staying in stride with our horses. These simple acts began to dissipate my uneasy feelings. I remained curious about what was nagging at me and why, but I felt much more present and centered. As we stood in the open green, we noted that the sun had begun to dominate the clouds, and was delightfully warming our faces.

I felt we were all ready to go down to the makeshift arena and tack up. In order to work on connecting and partnership with the horses, I have begun grooming and tacking them up while they are at liberty. This may take longer, but it gives them an opportunity to express their opinions, and it makes this aspect of getting ready more of a two-way conversation instead of the monologue of holding the horse still with a rope and insisting they accept the tack and our agenda.

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One key factor here is that Taj, the horse Amy was going to ride, has a deep-rooted dislike of the saddle being put on. It takes a great deal of patience and building of trust to tack her up with only the slightest pin of an ear. At its worst, putting the saddle on her results in foot stomping, kicking and gnashing of teeth. I’ve made sure to rule out physical pain as the reason for her behavior, and once a person is mounted and riding her respectfully, she is absolutely fine, sound and no longer worried.

To say the least, this experience of tacking up a horse was different from the one Amy had with Bluebell so many years ago. We broke everything down into small steps. We would groom one part of the body, then step away to simply be with the horse as she foraged around in the bits of remaining grass in the area. We put the saddle pad on and then just rubbed her neck a while where she enjoys a good scratch. When the saddle finally went on, there was very little reactivity, and we tightened the girth slowly, one hole at a time, with breaks to relax together in between.

By now, the sun was beaming, and we were ready to put the tack on Daisy. I began with the saddle pad, just as with Taj. As I turned to go back for the saddle, Taj, now in the center of the arena, began buckling her knees, lowering herself to the ground to roll. I leapt toward her, and sprung the girth, pulling the saddle away from her just as she rolled onto her back. Amy was laughing heartily by now. Well, Taj wanted to change the conversation and the schedule, so she did. Just as Taj got up, Daisy dropped to the ground behind us. She only had the saddle pad on, which she promptly rolled onto in the mud. Then, she let out a hefty sigh and settled in for a sleep.

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We went back over to Taj, and began again, small step by small step. This time, Amy was doing more herself, watching and waiting for Taj to show her she was ready for whatever was next. She did give us a harder time about the saddle going on the second time, so we went even more slowly with the girth. It gave me pause to see her reacting more vehemently, but I reminded myself that she was, in fact, free to walk away from us and the saddle at any time.

We backed away, still being with her and feeling connected to her, but giving her some time to settle with the saddle on again. Her head was low, her eyes and ears relaxed… she was really quite relaxed all over. In fact, she was suddenly so relaxed that I felt she was drifting off to sleep as well. Glancing over at Daisy, sprawled out in REM sleep across the arena, I then went back to Taj and took the tack off, draping it back over the fence.

 

We all spent at least twenty minutes just relaxing, soaking in the sun, and feeling completely settled together. I realized that I’d been carrying in my mind the idea of giving “a riding lesson,” and that was actually unsettling, because I don’t know if and when it’s going to be appropriate for someone to get on. I used that time to reflect on what really matters to me about the work I do with horses: practicing right alongside clients how to engage with respect and gratitude, to give and take, to lead and follow. I thanked the horses profusely for that day and every day we have together. We never did ride that day. Amy remarked, “That was just the perfect amount for me to do for the first time.” And I realized that Taj probably knew that all along.

 

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