Friday, August 31, 2012

Student of the Horse: A Closer Look at Love

I was born a horse person so it took me many years before I realized that there are non-horse people. And many more years to realize that some people can be good people and be non-horse people at the same time. Something I had previously considered a mutually exclusive occurrence. Make no mistake though - there are definitely two types of people in this world when it comes to horses. Students of the horse and people who like horses.

I hear it so often that I now tend to cringe when someone says, “I love horses. It is my dream to work with them.” One of my favorite dictionary definitions of love is “unselfish loyal and benevolent concern for others.” What most people “love” is the idea of horses and what it means as a reflection on them, which is not actual love. True love is not a Disney story with puppies and butterflies. Rather, it is a story about sacrifice, hardship, and making the choices you do not want to make. It is about commitment and connection, and some days, it is even about bliss. For the true horse person it is a life journey that tends to be daily and one they simply cannot live without.

Given all their beauty and magnificence, I find it difficult to believe that there are people on the planet who are not moved by the grace and power that is the horse. I think most people can have those moments of awe and spiritual connection or awakening with horses, but still not be a horse person. Often times what people are really seeking so much more than riding lessons, although most people are not consciously aware of what that something might be.

I find it to be most beneficial for all involved, horse and rider, if the rider gets clear on what that thing they are really looking for is. There is nothing wrong with not being a student of the horse and simply liking them, or having an appreciation for them, or being someone who enjoys going on the occasional trail riding adventures, but feels no need to have a horse in their daily life. Horses are like people in that some come with lots of their own issues and needs, while others come across as angels of the earth, here to take care of our every emotional need. 

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Journey

In some of our up-coming posts we will be exploring the concept of being "a student of the horse" and how that differs from the traditional form of horse riding lessons. This week our journey begins with Cimarron...

Cimarron has been with me almost three months.  When he arrived, he didn't want to be haltered when at liberty in the pasture and would only let me pick up his front left foot after being haltered.   He was easy to lead on the left, but very difficult to approach, touch, or lead from the right.  The first day it took 50 minutes before he would stand in the pasture to put on his halter.  We began five days a week- one hour a day of halter and feet training combined with massage.  By the end of the first week it only took 15 minutes to get his halter on and by the end of six weeks he was coming to me to have it put on each day.  Now, if I make a kissy noise, he walks towards me and positions himself on my right with his head lowered and his neck bent towards me to have his halter put on.  He is just as calm when having the halter removed and stands or walks off calmly when it comes off instead of trotting away as he did in the beginning.  After 8 weeks he would let me clean all four feet and at 10 weeks our farrier, Megan Perkins, pulled his front shoes and trimmed his front feet.  That was a major milestone for Cimarron and after some education his owner has committed to keeping Cimarron barefoot.  

After 8 weeks, I began to include Cimarron's owner in one lesson a week.  His owner is also able to groom him, lead him, and pick up his feet.  Cimarron has also "joined up" with us both at different times and even breathes my breath on occasion.

Throughout this process, myself and Ferronato continued to work on his body.  Cimarron holds a lot of tension in his body and has a very strong "trauma response".  "Trauma response" for Cimarron means he has anxiety over every new situation- new expectations, new locations, new equipment, etc.  When his anxiety increases, so does his tension in his body.  At times, every muscle in his body would be clenched in fear in an extreme sympathetic nervous system response.  It is my belief that Cimarron has experienced some kind of trauma or abuse in his past.  He has two brands (one on each hip) and several scars on his legs.  The exact nature of this trauma is unclear and it is not necessary to know the details to see the effect it has on him.  His anxiety over grooming, hoof care, haltering, and leading have decreased significantly.  But any new experiences still causes a trauma response in his body.  So many of the tensions that have been released in his body return when his anxiety gets up again.  While I don't think Cimarron has a mean bone in his body, I am very clear that he is still dangerous because of his anxiety and fear gets too great he wouldn't hesitiate to run a person over in his attempt to escape.

We are now moving into a new phase of training for Cimarron.  His owner has put together a list of things he would like to do with Cimarron.  Specifically, he wants to do trail riding and mounted shooting.   

The other day, Ferronato and I took Cimarron for a walk on the trail to get a baseline of how much work it will take for Cimarron to comfortably and safely do those things.  We took him out in a rope halter and didn't go far because it was clearly stressful for Cimarron and unsafe for Ferronato, as well as myself and Cimarron.  He did not respect our personal space, he walked too fast and ahead of us.  He was very focused on the possible "dangers" all around him and not on the person holding his rope.  He got very nervous going under a train bridge.  And this was just walking down a wide open trail with no other people, dogs, horses, cars or the many other things that you can encounter on a trail ride.  Ferronato and I discussed how to use body work to interrupt the trauma response- using t-touch and mediterranean techniques to teach him to relax his body and release his stress (mental and physical).  We also started on a plan to break trail riding down into its most basic elements and go a little farther each time. We started with just going up and down the gravel driveway. Truly every thousand mile journey begins with the first step.

The owner has a belief that Cimarron is a much better horse under saddle than he is in hand.  I have only seen Cimarron under saddle once- after his owner took him on a short trail ride I met them at their place as thay were returning.  He was very physically and mentally stressed after that ride and I thought at that time that if they continued for another 20 minutes, Cimarron would probably have freaked out and thrown his person.  But the owner thought he "did great".  What I saw was wide eyes and trembling hamstrings.  Cimarron was complying, but he wasn't relaxed or in any way enjoying himself.  Even if a horse is great under saddle, you should still be able to walk your horse safely on a trail in case something happens and you can't ride home.  

I feel that we will have to continue to work though this "trauma response' and teach him a different way to handle stressful situations with confidence before he will be safe to go under saddle.  We will continue to use bodywork, energywork, and various training techniques to do this, but unfortunatley I can't predict how long it will take.  "It takes as long as it takes" says Ferronato.  It could be that he has a breakthrough next week and resets his nervous system and the trauma is over.  Or it could be years of "two steps forward, one step back".  

Let's be clear- Cimarron is a very smart horse.  "Dumb" is not one of his problems.  But fears are not always rational and therefore not always predictable.  I am so grateful to have this opportunity to learn how to help this horse.  And even more grateful on the horse's behalf that his owner has brought him into a program where he will be treated with respect and love as he learns to work through these issues.  As he continues to improve on all levels, I have hope that we will help Cimarron to discover his joy and purpose in life.

--Nicole Sulick 
Nicole is a Three Treasures Farms Equine Massage Intern; her bio and contact information is available on our Intern Page