Moving Into Oneness
Evolution of Consciousness through Partnership with the Horse
Lessons from the Horse
Sharing experiences and insights on the learning adventure. This blog will contain posts about horsemanship, yoga, and bodywork, weaving together the parallels and Life Lessons reflected in them all.
Life is a never-ending journey...enjoy the ride.
A Horse Named Marco
6 Oct 2020
The work I'm doing today began unsuspectingly over 20 years ago, with a horse named Marco. He was a very sensitive, reactive OTTB, who had learned that humans were not to be trusted and that he was better off as a solo entity. A 7 year old thoroughbred just off the racing circuit and only recently gelded, he'd been purchased by a novice trainer at our barn in hopes of turning him around for quick profit; this "project" was short lived, however, as she found his constant rearing, biting, aggression, and lack of willingness to be more trouble than she cared to deal with. She decided to send him to auction, to at least recoup some money and be free of the expense and frustration. I had felt inexplicably drawn to this horse the first moment I saw him, and witnessed with sadness the disconnect and misunderstanding between him and his owner, and their mutual misery. Though I hadn't planned on buying another horse right then, I knew if a horse like that went to auction he'd likely end up abused or slaughtered. Having reschooled other ex-racehorses for transitions to new careers, I was not intimidated by his antics; I felt I could help him learn to trust, and I enjoy a challenge. There was something special about this horse, I just knew. Little did I know that he would become my best teacher, as well as the inspiration for my life's work.
In the beginning, Marco was a challenge for sure. The people who ran the barn referred to him (when they thought I wasn't within earshot) as "the mean horse;" they stalled him at the far end of the aisle where no one would be walking by, as he tended to lunge with ears pinned and teeth barred at anyone who passed (reminding me of an old line from Monty Python, "None shall pass!") He would likewise come at anyone who opened his stall door, then immediately run backwards to the corner of his stall, head high and eyes wild; he had played out this scenario so many times it had become his pattern for relating to the stall door being opened, regardless of the fact he was no longer living in a situation where that might have been appropriate. A perfect example, though an extreme one, of what we all do to some degree every day: our well-established patterns of perception and reaction, based on our past, prevent us from seeing clearly and responding appropriately in the present. In those days, Marco also hated to be groomed or touched in any way; I had to cross-tie him in order to groom him without being attacked, and I tried every kind of brush and every kind of technique to try to make it pleasant for him (which later motivated me to learn equine massage and bodywork - more on this later). In training, when he didn't understand something or got startled, his first reaction was to rear.
As we began work under saddle, I spent as much time falling off him as staying on ~ he'd go into racehorse mode at the slightest provocation, and I'd stay on as long as I could before hitting the dirt. This experience, too, taught me a valuable life lesson on the power of our minds and expectations. One day while he was flying around the large outdoor arena at top speed, I recognized that my mind was already "negatively projecting" an outcome: the all-too-familiar one of me coming off, and all the sensations associated with this. I realized that my own mental picturing and sensory imagining was paving the way for an outcome I didn't want. I knew that even if I couldn't ultimately control the outcome, I could at least stop investing in a negative one - it wasn't a matter of resisting the unwanted experience, actually, so much as simply feeling like I was rather tired of doing the same thing over and over, and realizing I had a choice. I decided I had nothing to lose by changing my mind: either I would fall off as I had dozens of times before, or I'd stay on and something different would unfold. Changing the pattern needed to start with me, in my own mind. I started envisioning myself staying on effortlessly, and imagining what that felt like. I focused on the rhythm of my breathing and began coordinating it with Marco's movement. Soon my mind was calm, and next thing I knew Marco had slowed down to a comfortable trot, and then a walk, all on his own without my interference. I never fell off that horse again, though we spent another 11 years together riding several times a week.
Marco taught me many things and inspired me in many ways as our relationship progressed. I had been practicing yoga since the age of 15, but it was Marco who showed me the direct application of yoga for riders and the need to share this valuable practice with others. At first for me, this meant the parallels between how I was taught to use my body in the yoga poses, and how I was taught to use my body on the horse: squaring the hips in Warrior I, for example, created the muscle memory and inner actions I needed to employ in the saddle to get a desired response from my horse. By practicing on the mat before going riding, I had a better sense of my own body patterns and developed better balance, alignment, and self-carriage to ride more effectively. Much of the riding instruction I had received until then was all about what to do "TO" the horse; indeed, this is still the primary method of riding technique taught by most trainers and in most books on the subject. But Marco was a very sensitive horse, and soon showed me that these methods are self-limiting as they are not cohesive with the language of the horse. Communication is the key to relationship, and if we want a better relationship we'd better learn to speak our partner's language. One early incident stands out clearly in my mind to this day: I was riding Marco in the arena, tracking left, and despite my leg and rein aids I could not get him straight. He kept pressing his ribcage to the left and dropping his inside shoulder. More effort with my rein and leg aids failed to accomplish anything besides making us both increasingly frustrated. Finally a little voice in my head said, "Why don't you straighten yourself out!?!" As I took my focus off of trying to change my horse, and instead turned my attention inward to observe myself, I realized that MY ribcage was pushed to the left, and MY left shoulder was collapsed forward; recognizing this, I straightened myself out...and miraculously, without any aids at all, my horse straightened too. I was in awe at what I was witnessing. A whole new level of awareness opened up as I realized my horse was mirroring me; for better or worse, he was doing not "what I say" but rather "what I do." Our horses, just like Life, are mirroring back to us our own patterns, reflecting what is inside us. If we want to change what's "outside" we must, as Gandhi said, "BE the change we want to see in the world."
After 11 years together, Marco died suddenly and unexpectedly, but his lessons stay with me and continue to deepen. I’ll share more memories of Marco and his teachings in other posts as I go along, as well as things my current herd and clients' horses continually expand my understanding of. But before I conclude this post, I feel it important for the reader to know that this horse that was so difficult in the beginning ended up being the most willing, engaged, rewarding partner I could have imagined. His rearing stopped early on, as I learned to work with him in a way that met him where he needed to be, and he never reared again in all our years together; it wasn’t a matter of “training him not to do it” or punishing him to make it unpleasant, but simply recognizing what was behind the behaviour - confusion, fear, frustration - catching the signs of overload and making a shift, before they amounted to a blow up (“Recognize what happens before what happens happens.” ~ Pat Parelli) He likewise came to actually enjoy being groomed; after a few years together and a change in lifestyle to living out 24/7 with other horses, he’d be the first to meet me at the gate, and stand in blissful stillness, twitching his nose and closing his eyes as I groomed him- no halter, no lines, no crossties. One of the biggest lessons Marco taught me was that horses are much more willing and able than humans to let the past go and embrace a new reality. So often in our relationships~ whether with our horses or other humans ~ we keep ourselves and others stuck in outdated patterns because of our own projections and assumptions, continuing to negatively predict expected outcomes based on the past. We limit ourselves and others from experiencing something different because of our attachment- attachment to an old paradigm or role, attachment to being right, even attachment to playing out the familiar just so we can feel the sense of safety/control that comes from knowing what's next. When we can open our minds to new possibilities and meet others where they need to be met, in the present moment, anything is possible.
"Stability and Mobility" - Tiara's frozen shoulder
8 October 2020
This post will be more on bodywork and how an initial injury can lead to a compensatory pattern that stays around long after the original problem is healed. And, as the body mirrors so beautifully the truths of the mind, there is a Life lesson in here too...
Tiara is a 4 year old OTTB, who came to me in mid-August 2020. She was retired from racing in September 2019 due to a severely torn flexor tendon in her right front limb. A year of excellent care- PRP (protein rich plasma) injections, stall rest, and carefully monitored controlled exercise healed the tendon beautifully; having seen her original ultrasounds, which showed nearly a complete tear of the tendon, my vet was amazed to find that it felt almost entirely normal and that she moved so soundly. As I'm getting to know her, I notice she has a strong pattern of positioning that limb caudally (back) while grazing, and when I pick up her feet to clean, the same pattern is emphasized in the directional pull of her muscles as she puts the limb down. I explored this to find that she has an upward fixated scapula, much like "frozen shoulder" in humans. In humans, this condition often develops as a result of another injury such as a torn rotator cuff; the body "freezes" the functional muscles around the scapula in order to try to limit further damage and create stability, in compensation for the hyper-mobile, destabilized structures. It seems that Tiara's body has done the same thing, freezing her scapula to create more stability in the limb, as the tendon was so compromised and the healing process so lengthy. Sometimes in bodywork, the key to correcting an acute issue is to look for the deeper cause and work to resolve that; at other times, and this seems to be the case with Tiara's right front, the original injury is no longer a problem but has created other issues that now need to be addressed. I worked with her scapula today, using Ortho-Bionomy and Craniosacral techniques. I'll keep you posted on how she responds as she has time to process the work.
As for the Life Lesson... We were taught in massage school that the body needs a balance between the forces of STABILITY and MOBILITY. Without the stability of our pelvis and hips, for example, we couldn't walk two steps without falling in a heap on the floor; but too much stability and not enough mobility, and we'd be frozen in place, unable to walk at all. Our psyches, and likewise our horses', need a balance of stability and mobility too: without a sense of stability and support, we can be ungrounded, scattered, anxious, unable to focus or make decisions. When our life is in constant flux, we lack stability; we can cope with this better at some times of our lives than others, depending on how prolonged or intense the instability has been and how emotionally stressful it has felt to us. Likewise, too much "stability" and not enough "mobility" (i.e. too much of the same routine and surroundings day in and day out, and not enough variety or new experiences) we can become stuck, falling into unproductive ruts, unable to see other possibilities available to us.
We each need to find the best balance for ourselves, and recognize that what works for us at one time in our lives may not be what we need at other times. Get present, go within. If you're feeling ungrounded or scattered, chances are you're needing more stabilty- create some consistency and routine in your life to provide the structure you need, and you may soon feel recharged and able to be more flexible and spontaneous as a result. On the other hand, if you're feeling stuck in a rut, challenge yourself to do something different each day; even something as simple as taking a different route to work can begin to loosen things up and awaken our minds to seeing life with new eyes.
Keep these same principles in mind when working with your horses- they, too, need the right balance between stability/consistency and mobility/variety to function at their best. Each individual is different, just like us, and what works best for one won't be the right balance for another, or on another day under different circumstances. Your efforts to understand and provide what your horse needs will have big payoffs: a happy, well-balanced horse makes the best partner.
Fight or Flight: Working with the Sympathetic Nervous System
9 October 2020
Tiara’s Treasure, my 4 year old OTTB, is a sensitive girl prone to episodes of "losing it." She has been described as "a handful," "fractious," and "needs a gentle touch and an experienced handler.” In western medical terms, she has a genetic condition known as Px2, PSSM (I'm still learning about this); it is prevalent in thoroughbreds, and in some ways makes them great for the job they're being bred to do. In horses with this condition, their sympathetic nervous system is often in a heightened state of arousal that reacts to the slightest stimulus: like a switch being flipped, the nervous system over-rides any rational thinking, making the horse run like a bat out of hell even to the point of irreparable injury to themselves. In Parelli language, this is a "Right Brained Extrovert," and the Parelli's have developed a lot of valuable awareness and tools to help horses like this become more balanced. In Cesar Milan's verbage, this horse represents "unstable energy;" his teachings, too, have been a big help as I navigate how to work with Tiara.
I absolutely adore this special girl. As I work with Tiara, she is teaching me so much, not only about horses but about my own needs and the needs of others as well. I, too, am very sensitive. I used to see this as a fault, something to be ashamed of, something to try to numb and overcome in order to fit in. But I've come to recognize it as a gift- one that needs to be honored and accommodated, one that allows me to feel, recognize, and respond to things that others miss. Like an autistic child, where too much sensory input sends them over the edge, people like me ~ and horses like Tiara ~ need special care to bring out our gifts. Maybe that's why I was drawn to her.
Tiara is the smartest, sharpest, quickest learner I have ever known. She thoroughly loves and craves interaction, always the first to “volunteer” when I go out to the herd. Eager to please, she also requires some immediate gratification for her efforts or she easily becomes discouraged. She similarly takes to heart the slightest reprimand, and loses her desire to try. I've found some things to be really helpful for Tiara, and I hope by sharing them they can help other horses too.
For starters, she learns best in small doses, with plenty of repetition and consistency, plenty of positive reinforcement, and plenty of space between training sessions. Initially I made the mistake of thinking that, as fast as she learns, she could handle lots of different learning in one session. I soon found that this is not the case. Her nervous system is sensitive, and too much information, too much "new," and she loses both her composure and the ability to retain anything learned. Less is definitely more.
Consistency in other aspects of her life is very helpful too- not so much to "avoid setting her off," but simply recognizing that it helps support her in being more balanced (see the earlier post on "Stability and Mobility" aka "Consistency and Variety"). Her tolerance for change is naturally increasing as she becomes more balanced and feels more secure, and she's better able now to handle inconsistencies without being stimulated into reactivity. In order to get there, though, we needed a lot of consistency in the beginning. Just like STABILITY and MOBILITY, change and consistency need to be in balance, and we each have different needs in that regard. When you can recognize and provide what your horse needs, they'll flourish. And a happy, balanced horse makes the most enjoyable partner.
I also taught her a simple task to do, something easy, which is part of our everyday routine: halter herself. Holding up the lead rope like a "bridge" I wait for her to put her head through. Once she grasped this, I had her do the same with the halter. She picked this up the first day I had her, and I reinforce it each time I want to take her anywhere (even when I could just as easily open a gate and let her get from one pasture to another herself, I find she does better with more structure, at least at this point.) This particular task both gives the horse something easy to do- which helps them access their "thinking brain" and regain confidence- AND by having them actively lower the poll below the withers, it starts to shift the nervous system from "fight/flight/freeze" mode (sympathetic dominant) to "relax/digest/heal/learn" mode (parasympathetic). The value of this simple task has been immense: when she would start to fly into frenzy mode, all I had to do was stand there calmly, holding up the rope- within a short time, she'd come over and put her head through, her brain shifting from reacting to actually thinking and being present....blinking, licking, lowering her head...ready now to interact. Now she has far fewer episodes of losing it and is quicker about coming out of them. She's becoming better at self-regulating, self-correcting. She has begun to recognize she has options of how to react when she feels triggered, and to pause and respond differently.
If only we humans were such quick studies! How often do we internally react when our buttons get pushed, buying into the story or drama, mentally spinning on and on, not recognizing our own capacity to self-regulate, self-correct...not recognizing we have a choice.
"If you can give a person something to do in a situation that feels out of control for them, you will help them- you will reduce their stress and pain."
~Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living
In the beginning when you are teaching anything, reward the horse profusely and make a big deal of them. When they associate a task with something positive, the sympathetic nervous system is subdued and the parasympathetic leads. As a task becomes an easy "no-brainer" for them and you graduate on to other things, you don't need to give a treat or make such a big deal, you and the horse just expect it as part of your relationship. Later as you train more difficult tasks, you can "go back to your foundation" with something simple and easy like this whenever you run into a sticky spot where you lose connection with your horse, or if they get upset while learning something new. Going back to something simple they already know will help restore their confidence, willingness, and ability to think clearly.
10 October 2020
Joshua is a 10 year old OTTB. A tall, stately gentleman, he raced until just a year ago. Having had 88 starts at the track, Josh has been exposed to a lot and experienced a lot in his lifetime so far. One might think he’d be pretty ok with anything and nothing could ruffle his feathers, but this is not so.
Witnessing how Josh interacts with other horses is teaching me much about human relationships and discernment. Though he dislikes being alone, I’ve learned he is particular about who he hangs around with. He and Tiara came from the same place and had previously been turned out together, but he was not really attached to her. They’d initially stay near one another in the pasture, being the first 2 members of my new herd, but it was more like “Well, if I was stranded on a desert island and had no other company...”. A few days after their arrival at my farm, Josh discovered my neighbor’s “Plain Jane” old Quarterhorse mare over the fence, and suddenly Tiara was out in the cold. Josh didn’t let her anywhere near him, and he’d pin his ears and go after her with his teeth, leaving nasty bite marks on her rear end and driving her away before returning to the fence to stare adoringly at “Wizzy.“ Whether or not Wizzy may have been in heat is unknown, but Josh’s behaviour towards Tiara remained consistent for several months so it is unlikely that he was simply responding to hormones.
So, what did Wizzy have that Tiara didn't, making Josh so drawn to her? Calm energy. Horses are authentic; they trust what they feel no matter what you try to tell them, and they respond honestly to someone’s energy. In this case, Josh was making it clear that he much preferred being around a stable, grounded energy than a fractious, flighty one. Nothing personal. Simply discerning for himself what felt good to him and what didn’t, and acting accordingly. As far as appearance goes, Tiara is gorgeous, graceful, and elegant, and Wizzy is no comparison. In the human world we are so caught up in appearances, status, and external perceptions, we have lost our ability to perceive what really matters, much less to honor our inner mechanism that always knows what’s right for us. But in the horse world, its not about looks, not about the superficial stuff.
Josh showed this same preferential bias when my third horse, Monica, joined the herd. Monica, like the neighbor’s mare, is a steady, calm presence and Josh took to her right away. While he’d charge at Tiara if she came within 20 feet of him, he’d let Monica do whatever she wanted, even allowing her to shove her nose into his bucket as he ate.
Interestingly, as Tiara has become more grounded and stable, with our work together and settling into her new life, Josh has changed his behaviour towards her. No longer chasing her away, they often eat from the same hay pile or even groom each other. She no longer has bite marks on her rear end. He’s let her into his space because she’s more pleasant to be around. In observing how this has played out, there are two take-aways for me: one is a lesson of Discernment, the other is Energy.
Discernment isn’t judgement or rejection. It’s simply a matter of recognizing what resonates for us and what doesn’t, and giving ourselves permission to honor our truth. Sometimes the greatest act of acceptance, in fact, is to recognize that someone or something isn’t a good fit for you. It’s nothing personal.
The other key point Josh and Tiara demonstrated here is that others are always responding to our energy (as we are to theirs). “You teach people how to treat you,” by what kind of energy you are emitting. If we don’t like how someone is treating us, it is likely that there is a pattern in us that is inviting and attracting that behaviour, like Tiara's energy evoked certain responses from Josh. When we tend to our own inner needs, supporting ourselves so that we are more happy and balanced, we attract experiences that match that. When we are calm and grounded, pleasant to be around, others feel good in our presence and are more likely to be kind and helpful. It’s nothing personal.
The Power of Intention
5 November 2020
It is the intention behind our actions, not the actions themselves, that determines the results we experience. The power of intention is a central part of Gary Zukav's teaching in Seat of the Soul, and it has very practical and meaningful implications in our lives and in our work with horses.
As Gary explains, "Intentions are one with cause and effect." A positive, loving intention will bring about positive results. A negative or egocentric intention will carry with it a particular energy frequency which will bring negative results. If we look underneath any choice to act, we will see the underlying intention and motivation driving this choice. Peeling back the layers, we'll find the deepest root of the intention is based in either love or fear, unity consciousness or separation. One evokes cooperation, the other opposition. While the external action may appear the same on surface level, it is the underlying motivation that determines whether that choice will bring peace and harmony to ourselves and others, or create more division and opposition.
Horses are natural "Lie detectors." They are authentic beings, and when someone in their presence is not authentic it makes them uneasy. No matter how you are acting on the outside, the horse can feel what's really going on under the surface - even when you yourself may not be conscious of it. If your intention with your horse is to prove yourself, or to dominate and control (all ego driven intentions), they will sense this and respond as prey animals to your predatory energy, regardless of what you are physically doing. If your intention is a meaningful partnership and true connection with your horse, your horse will feel safe and trusting in your presence and open to engaging with you. Notice the way your horse responds when you are carrying an underlying intention of force or ego vs. when you are fully present, just enjoying the moment together. Outwardly, you may be doing the same "activity" but your underlying energy will have a bigger impact on the results of that activity than your actions themselves.
The same is true when we feel pressed for time while with our horses- they sense our inner urgency as pressure, and often react to this by being unsettled and uncooperative. Monty Roberts wisely points out,
"If you go at it like you have 5 minutes, it might take you all day. But if you go at it like you have all day, it might take you 5 minutes."
Two recent farrier experiences with my mares spotlighted the importance of our intentions. Both mares are 4 year old TB's, and had been with me only 4 weeks at the time of their appointment with "Farrier One." Neither horse had given me any trouble with crossties or picking up their feet for cleaning until after their experience with this farrier. Though this person's technical skills had earned her a good reputation, her energy was aggressive and dominating. The mares were nervous around her, and her impatience and gruffness with them - followed by high-pitched phony baby talk - made them even more nervous. To make matters worse, both the farrier and I were on a tight schedule that morning. The energy was feeling increasingly edgy, and really blew up when the farrier put Tiara's right front foot on the stand. Tiara had recently recovered from a severely bowed tendon in this leg, and the farrier hadn't tightened the stand appropriately so it gave way under Tiara's foot; the mare reacted with intense fear feeling the "ground give way" under a limb with a recent history of a similar over-stretch trauma, and started pulling back and thrashing her head back and forth trying to free herself of the crossties. We finally got her still enough to finish the job, but we were all a bit shaken and the farrier's impatience was intensified. Monica, who had been witness to all this, looked at me like I was feeding her to the wolves when I crosstied her next. I tried to breathe and be a calm presence for them, tried to stay out of judgement in my mind, but I don't think I was very successful. Monica, normally very low key and mild-mannered, gave this farrier "all kinds of trouble" (human interpretation... horse interpretation: "I'm uneasy, I don't trust you, and do you seriously think I want to give you control of one of my legs and let you take off part of my foot?!?") To make a long story short, neither of these mares had ever given me any issue with picking up their feet or with crossties before this experience, but afterwards they didn't even want to come into the barn much less let me crosstie them, and picking up feet suddenly became a big ordeal. The barn aisle and crossties now represented a negative experience for them, not a comfortable place as it had before, and I now had some damage I needed to undo. I worked on it diligently and daily, and got the help of a friend, in preparation for the next farrier appointment. Time crunch aside, Farrier One was not a good match for me or for my horses and I found someone else who I knew to be talented both in barefoot trimming and as a trainer in natural horsemanship.
Four weeks went by, and it was time for their next farrier appointment, which I scheduled for an afternoon when I had no place I needed to be afterwards. I admit I was a bit nervous after their last experience. But the new farrier quickly put us all at ease with his calm, patient demeanor. As he picked up each foot, he paused, patiently working with the horse to find comfort, waiting a moment to feel their agreement and trust in him before proceeding with his trimming. My mares were so comfortable with his approach to them, not only did they cooperate and relax, they both even yawned repeatedly! Farrier Two not only made all the difference in how well this appointment went for them (and him), but also undid the trauma induced by the previous person, leaving both horses feeling positively about having their feet handled.
Helping a horse to feel safe and comfortable in your presence is imperative not only to having a successful partnership, but for your own safety as well. A horse that stands still out of obedience and fear is not a "safe horse"- it is a bomb waiting to explode. The point in sharing my story is to demonstrate that our energy and intention make all the difference in how a horse feels in our presence and responds to us. It's not about what we're DO-ing, it's all about how we're BE-ing while we do it. Farrier One had an underlying aggression, impatience, and dominance that could not be disguised by her high pitched baby talk to the horses, and this was made worse by the fact that both she and I were pressed for time; the horses were uneasy and uncooperative for her. Farrier Two was inwardly and outwardly peaceful, creating an environment of safety and comfort, and inviting a cooperative partnership with the horses.
We can all learn from this: if you approach a horse with an internal intention to dominate, rush, or prove yourself, no matter how you might try to "sugar coat" it, the horse will sense your incongruency and won't trust you or feel safe around you. Before engaging with your horse, take a moment to center yourself. Check your attitude and intention. Breathe. Connect with your own body, breath, the ground under your feet. Then calmly proceed forward. You'll likely find your horse much more interested and willing to engage with you.
23 November 2020
Appropriate exercise does not cause lameness, and
can in fact be a valuable part of the rehabilitation process.
The same common sense that applies to us going to the gym or doing a workout routine applies to our horses as well. If the exercise we’re doing is appropriate for our bodies, it will make us stronger, not break us down & cripple us. The physical demand simply needs to be appropriate for the body doing it, and any increase in demand needs to be made slowly and incrementally, watching for any sign of discomfort or imbalance. In our horses, these signs usually first show up as a less-than-enthusiastic mental attitude.
As an example, if I want stronger arms I might do bicep curls with free weights. Given my frame/build, I should probably start with 3-5 lb weights. Over time, if I‘m consistent, I can safely increase the weight/demand in gradual increments. This will build strength rather than creating injury, and the strength built will also help keep my body injury-free as I tackle other tasks in daily life. On the other hand, if I put too much demand on my body when I have not adequately prepared it, like trying to use 50lb free weights (inappropriate for my size no matter how long I’ve been building my strength) or doing too many reps, I will surely damage my body instead of strengthening it...then I will need time, therapy, and rest to heal before I can go back to the gym.
The need to educate people on this has become more and more apparent over my years as a bodyworker. Many well-meaning horse owners who truly love their horses make the mistake of confusing horses and ATV's, to be pulled out of storage any time they want to go for a spin. Just like us, horses need regular, appropriate exercise in order to stay sound and fit, and to be sufficiently prepared for the job they are being asked to do. This is even more important for horses whose owners have goals of performing or working up the levels in their chosen discipline; a horse ridden twice a week will not develop at the same rate as another horse ridden 5 times a week, yet many riders make the mistake of expecting it to do so. And like the example above, asking more of the horse than he is physically prepared to do well will actually cause damage rather than build strength; the damage then needs treatment, rest, and time to repair before the body can go to work again, and when it does return to work you're now dealing with a compromised structure.
Certainly, a horse can be hurt on his own out in the pasture: a swift kick from a turnout pal, a slip while running on wet grass or mud, a bump of a hip while going through a gate. We do our best as horse owners to minimize and prevent such things, but we can't bubble wrap our horses (unless we want them insane... not fun either). What I'm talking about here are the aspects of our horses' physical activity that are directly our responsibility, and which can either contribute to making them more sound or more broken.
Aside from the basic mechanics of this discussion, one must also consider the wider ranging effects of inappropriate exercise. Discomfort on any level- physical, mental, or emotional- triggers the sympathetic (fight/flight/freeze) nervous system, leading to stress-related conditions such as ulcers, allergies, digestive and skin problems, and a partner who is less willing to engage with you. Stressed horses can become withdrawn, cranky, or aggressive; handling them can range from simply unpleasant to downright dangerous.
Physical pain creates mental/emotional trauma-
this trauma is reinforced each time it happens,
even in the hands of well-meaning and kind people...
Trainers often have undue pressure on them to “produce” according to outside expectations - it puts them in a bad position because what is wanted isn’t always appropriate for the horse. Trainers need to have the support and permission to proceed at a pace that feels appropriate for each individual horse- mentally, physically, and emotionally. A more successful outcome is made possible when you and your trainer “take the time it takes” to produce a truly balanced horse, comfortable on all levels of his being and completely on board with all aspects of his work- physically, mentally, and emotionally.
The goal you are working for needs to be congruent with your horse's ability and with what you yourself are willing to put into preparing him for the task.
There are 3 primary factors to consider:
current physical condition, time spent exercising, and the intensity of the exercise.
Current physical condition is the basis for determining where to start, so that the exercise can systematically and gradually improve this condition while not causing damage. If you have been a couch potato, or worse yet, laid up with a back injury or something of the sort, it would be wise to start with a daily walk around the block; if you decided instead to jump right in to an hour-long aerobics class, you'd likely be sore (and not in a good way) and prone to injury. Likewise with your horse. If your horse has been a pasture pet, he is out of condition and will need to be brought back gradually. If your horse is older or has a history of physical lameness issues, he will need his physical demands modified. You wouldn't expect your 80 year old grandmother to do the same physical workout as a 25 year old athletic man.
Time spent exercising refers to both duration (how long the exercise session is), and frequency (how often you exercise your horse). Each horse, just like us, is individual; there is no one formula that will work for everyone. The first priority should be to do no harm. 15 minutes of hand walking every other day is a safe place to start, even for elderly or compromised horses. From there, you can gradually increase (or if needed, decrease) based on your horse's response. According to Ted Stashak, DVM in his book Practical Guide to Lameness in Horses, "In general, a horse has 15 minutes of peak performance whether in a daily work session or at a competition." A trainer friend of mine, Katie Schmit, has trained hundreds of horses and is the head trainer of FLTRAC facility specializing in transitioning ex-racehorses to new careers; Katie has found that most horses, even those with the high energy and fitness level of a racing thoroughbred, do best with just 15-20 minutes of exercise. The horses I have rehabilitated would agree. Many horses begin to exhibit problems after the 30 minute mark, whether behavioural (such as bucking) or movement related (such as recruiting muscles to get a job done); yet somehow we humans have become conditioned into thinking that all horses should work for a full hour every time we get on.
Intensity refers to the physical demand of the work itself, including specific maneuvers being asked and the weight and balance of the rider. Start with a low-intensity demand, such as walking, and gradually increase over time adding trot work, canter, and lateral work depending on your horse's response. Rider weight and balance is extremely important: a fit horse should carry no more than 20% of his body weight - maximum - in combined weight of rider and tack (for example, a 750lb Paso or pony needs a rider below 115lbs if tack is another 35lbs). Furthermore, the rider must be balanced and have self-carriage (if you've ever tried to move those 100lb bales of hay on a wheelbarrow, you get an idea of how the same weight when even slightly off balance becomes exponentially heavier and more cumbersome.)
As you begin refining your horse's exercise routine, be sure to make changes gradually and let your horse's response and attitude guide you. Don't increase both duration and intensity simultaneously; stick to the same time frame and frequency when you add more demanding exercises, and increase the time only when the current level of work becomes easy for your horse. Watch for your horse's response: any avoidance,
unwillingness, or loss of connection signals discomfort- whether the discomfort is physical, mental, or emotional it is all relevant. Physical soreness or pain will cause mental upset and an unwillingness to return to work again, in addition to setting you up for lameness issues. Mental/emotional tension or confusion will lead to physical holding patterns and dysfunctional movement. If the work is appropriate for the horse and progressing along at a pace that your horse is comfortable with on all levels, you will have a happy, willing partner who is stronger and more apt to stay sound over the long run.
"If Momma Ain't Happy..."
18 January 2021
I've recently had two experiences that exemplify how profoundly and directly horses are affected what's happening in those around them. In my opinion, we humans, too, are likewise affected but are often unconscious of it. This points to the importance of keeping ourselves balanced, peaceful, and happy, as our our internal states have effects that carry far beyond ourselves. It also points to the importance of being selective about those you spend time with, as their energies will affect you.
As mentioned in some of my previous posts, my mare, Tiara, is a sensitive girl and gives me lots of learning opportunities. The stress of cold weather recently has brought an increase in her usual sensitivity, as well as suspected ulcers, and she has been more agitated, impatient, crabby, dominant and reactive than usual. Monica, my sweet mild-mannered mare, has been "low man" in the herd ever since they settled in, but this has become exaggerated in response to Tiara's increased ferocity. Monica has been more wary and on guard than usual, wisely distancing herself from Tiara and often positioning herself with a fence between them. Josh hasn't seemed as bothered by Tiara's fiery energy (this is different than her earlier insecurity which he had no tolerance for); however, Monica's increased insecurity annoyed him, and he's been driving her away.
The past 3 days, I began some dietary adjustments for Tiara and added herbal supplements for soothing her stomach and calming her nerves. Additionally, I've been more diligent about using flower essences for each of my horses: Tiara currently gets Transform Anger, Calm Child, and Male Support (which contains Impatiens, excellent for easing impatience). Monica is on Courage and Athlete's Spirit (both help with confidence and a stronger sense of self, and Athlete's Spirit is particularly good for strength, energy, and a grounded, embodied physical presence). Josh gets Athlete's Spirit as well as Cleansing Fire (to help clear past patterns and engage him in a more grounded way with his body).
I am amazed at what I'm witnessing just 3 days into this. Not only is Tiara calmer and more content, but the whole herd dynamic has shifted. Tiara has stopped running Monica off the hay piles and they are actually nibbling hay side by side! Monica is engaging with the other two more than usual, hanging out or napping in a close knit group, sometimes even playing with obstacles together (normally Tiara would greedily possess these too, running Monica away); instead of being insecure or wary and hanging back, Monica now comes right up and confidently takes her place among the others. Even Josh is more content and peaceful; his own dominant tendencies have settled and he is being friendly with Monica. The herd is more integrated and balanced, and each individual is more at ease.
"Make yourself so happy that when others are near you they become happy too."
~ Yogi Bhajan
Now for my other recent experience. I was working with a horse at Horse Protection of Florida last week. This horse, I'll call M, had a history of abuse, ulcers, and a lot of things being forced on her that caused her pain. Morgan, who runs HPAF, says this horse has been the hardest to keep weight on of all the horses she's ever dealt with (which is saying a lot, since Morgan has successfully rescued hundreds of horses from starvation and turned them into healthy, thriving individuals.) Morgan's goals for my sessions with M are to make her more comfortable and reduce stress, in hopes of helping her better maintain weight (in conjunction, of course, with all the dietary and supplemental things Morgan is already doing). I've worked with M a few times before, and she often prefers off-body work and Reiki to a more hands-on approach. She needs to know that her boundaries will be respected, and that she can be in control of her experience.
As I entered M's stall this time, she was napping in the back corner and immediately put her ears back at me, letting me know she did not want her peace disturbed by anyone “doing” anything to her. I decided to simply focus on centering myself and see where M wanted to take things from there. Staying at the opposite corner of her stall, I worked on myself, creating a space in which she could let her guard down, free to take from my internal workings whatever she wanted and apply them to herself if she chose.
This session was the ultimate “doing FOR the horse, vs. doing TO the horse," and she LOVED it! More valuable than engaging with her, was giving her the experience of a human honoring her boundaries, honoring her desire to have space and to NOT engage. As I began, she took a deep breath and began to relax. As I tuned inward and focused on grounding, M squared up, passed gas, and did lots of licking. She repositioned her body to face me directly, deeply relaxing and licking some more. Part way through, as I ran my spirals, she arched her entire spine into a huge “giraffe stretch," then squared up again, doing more licking, going into deeper relaxation.
Just as rewarding to me as M's response to my inner work was that the entire barn became peaceful, quiet and calm during the session. The horse in the next stall stayed close on the other side of the wall, deeply relaxing as well; the horse on M's other side who cribs constantly ceased cribbing and became quiet; the horse across the aisle who had been incessantly and impatiently pawing, stopped and settled into stillness. Throughout the barn, I heard the sounds of relaxed, peaceful horses: lots of licking, blowing, and deep sighs.
Horses are very sensitive. They feel the internal states of those around them as if they were their own states. People, I believe, also feel and respond to these things, albeit often unconsciously. Taking a lesson from what my herd and M demonstrated, we are reminded of the importance of tending to our own inner states - not only for the well-being of ourselves, but for everyone with whom we come in contact, and for the wider world as well. This is where our power lies. The shift we want to see in the outer world begins within each one of us. "Let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with me."
To be continued....