Horsey Therapist

Tuesday, July 10, 2007


I spent a few hours recently with my friend, Gloria, and her young mare, Velvet. Gloria asked me to write out some of my observations to help her recall what went on during that time. Here are those thoughts pretty much as I wrote them to her.

One of your 'wants' was to see me ride Velvet. I knew I wanted to go through some assessment/get connected time together with her before I decided whether it would feel safe and right to mount her. That assessment would give me (and did give me) a sense of how attentive and responsive and understanding of my requests she might be.

In the round pen at liberty... what does she do and how does she do it when I ask her to do something with me?

Key thing to think about, be aware of: is she with me, are we connected and feeling good together? All my efforts are to build a good feeling between us that she can trust and will look for. A good feeling as the foundation of all of our interactions.

Can we walk off together? Can we stop together. Can we trot together? Can we turn left or right together? Can she walk off from me when I request but still stay mentally connected? Can she speed up without getting worried?

Sometimes Velvet got stuck and when she got stuck, it took more effort on my part to effect a change (halt to walk for example, or walk to trot) and when she made the change it was faster or quicker, had some worry and hurry involved. When she was present and responsive to my requests, her transitions were smooth and effortless.

You and I talked about her history and the sense that she coped (and still copes) by dissociating, by spacing out. Then she is very "spooky" or startles when she's coming back to the here and now. So, if she reacts with some hurried movement when I've gotten bigger or firmer in my request because she didn't respond to my more subtle requests, her spooky actions are due to her surprise, her startledness upon returning to here and now -- perhaps simply that surprise, or perhaps surprise plus fear that she's about to get punished or bullied or whatever it was that has left her wanting to 'go away' mentally from the present. So, doing things to invite her here, even insist that she come here (here means the present mentally and emotionally, not a specific physical location) are not what causes her reactions (though they could if timing or degree of firmness were off) but her own inside worries are what causes her reactions.

Greeting her with warmth, reassurance, quietness inside when she comes through these places will help build the foundation of 'it feels good together' for her. She will always have her memories, but she will more and more be able to recall and rely on memories that feel good.

We talked about the timing of reassuring her. When you reassure her while she is worried, she will understand that being worried is a wanted condition, an emotional state that we value. If you think thoughts like 'you can make it, you can find a feeling place that feels better' while you ask and/or wait for change, then reassure her when you see her soften (eye, mouth, breathing, etc.) that will let her know that searching and finding her way to a change is what is wanted.

She was a little worried about the saddling and would stand for it but I asked her to move a little. Actually I think this was just with the saddle pad. I would rather a horse show me how bad they feel than have them stand there and stuff it. Stuffing bad feelings leads to explosions of smaller or greater degree. If it feels like the horse is a little worried with a saddle pad for example, I will ask her to walk off. So often, once a horse knows she can leave, that she has a choice, then she will stay. Velvet was certainly within the emotional range of being able to think things through, never hit a panic mode. From what you say, you can take credit for that because you've already helped her feel OK enough to keep her mind engaged to some degree even when she's worried about something. Very important!

Her understanding and responsiveness to my leg and rein aids when mounted improved. I did not try to keep her moving once I had asked for a walk and she answered with a walk. If she stopped, I just asked again. Lots of opportunities to ask for walk and for her to respond with walk. Sometimes it took a LOT of energy from me before she would walk. It felt like she got stuck and didn't know how to get out of the bad feeling place, didn't know what she could do to stop the pressure from my leg aids. She started to understand that. I tried each and every time to ask with the lightest of request that I could imagine (the thought to walk!) then follow up with stronger requests until she made some effort to walk. At first it might be just the feeling that she was considering to walk. I want her to understand my release means 'yes' or 'good try', and that will help her keep trying regardless of whether she comes up with the right answer. She first needs to feel confident that it's OK to try, and that trying is actually something that feels good to us both, and then once that is established, I might start giving her feedback sooner about 'yes good try' or 'yes good try but try again'.

Like with ground work, when Velvet was stuck standing still, when she did finally move it had more energy and awkwardness than when she moved off without first being stuck. On some level I don't care at all WHY she is stuck or WHAT is her history, I really care about the present experiences feeling good, or better put: I really care that she believes from her own experience that we can feel good together and she will do her best to try to find how to find that good feeling place when it's missing.

Before I saddled and rode her, I did the changing eyes exercise as it is often called. That was when I took the lead rope around the far side of her body and invited her to find her way off the pressure. This exercise to me is much more than getting comfortable changing eyes. Changing eyes is what a horse does when we or any object moves from the field of vision of one eye to the other eye. Their brains take in info from their eyes differently than ours do, not in the integrated manner that humans have.

I'll attempt to describe this exercise which can and should be done from each side. If I am on the left, I stand at the neck and take the extra long lead rope (12-20' long) and either take it over the face and head or under the neck so it is on the far side and hold it draped over the withers. (If at any point the horse is worried about the feel of the rope or the sight of the rope, do not proceed until the horse is OK with this.) Then I will slide or lightly toss the rope further and further back until it drops over the rump and rests lightly above the hocks. It may well fall to the ground so hopefully I've previously done something to help the horse feel comfortable with ropes dangling around the hind legs and feet. Then I will lift slightly, taking some slack out of the lead rope, and see what the horse does. Ideally, the horse will follow the feel of the lead rope on the halter, as if I am using my right rein in this situation, and turn to the right keeping slack in the rope and rearrange her body coming around to the right in a small graceful fashion, at which point I will turn away and walk off with her following me.

Velvet got stuck going to the left. She figured out going to the right pretty quickly.

When a horse gets stuck, I like to wait as much as possible, increasing the pressure on the lead rope only if I get the sense the horse has stopped thinking about the puzzle, about the bind she is in. Then I might 'help' by increasing the pressure in order to encourage some more searching for the answer, and/or I might change my body position moving further to her hindquarters, even behind her to her right side so she can connect the pressure with the visual of my body there on the right side of her which might be familiar from previously being led in a circle or lunged. But I do want her to eventually show me she understands how to think this through without worry, and show me she understands how to follow the slack as if it were my rein.

I do not want to pull on the reins or the lead rope. I want to help educate the horse to keep slack in the reins or the lead rope, so if the horse starts to feel the slack going out (picture I start to walk someplace with lead rope in my hand while she's standing still), she will rearrange her body in order to keep the slack in the lead rope or rein.

This is what comes out right now without much editing or re-reading. I should mention something about how to deal with herd bound issues, or in this case, it was Gloria bound. Once she understands to walk when asked, encourage her gently to move when she is thinking about coming to hang out near you, or the barn, or another horse, until she herself chooses to move away rather than toward you... I think I wrote more extensively about this recently while describing some experimenting I was doing with Rusty and Kacee here at home.


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